A case study: There is one student, a boy that I will call Lucas, who had Ms. Stone one year and Ms. Fire the next. Actually, he was my student for three weeks. The principal took him out of my classroom and put him in Ms. Stone’s. She could tell, after observing him for a few minutes, that he was far too much for a first-year teacher like me.

Lucas has that fatal combination, which I have met a few times since, of severe emotional disequilibrium and remarkable intellectual ability. On my first day, he walked right over to my computers, without saying a word of greeting, and turned them on. He then called me over and said, quite calmly, “These computers don’t seem up to date, Mr. Arp. What is this? Windows ’98? I can tell it’s ’98 from the icons and the desktop background. Is that the kind of classroom you run? And why are there no words on your vocabulary wall?” By the end of the day, he had gotten into two major fights, and would not listen to a word, not a single word, I said.

I’m sure that veteran teachers have met quite a few Lucases, but I was totally overwhelmed. The tone of adult authority that drove the rest of the class had absolutely no effect on Lucas. Perhaps veteran teachers have developed strategies for their Lucases. Let’s see how he did with Ms. Stone and Ms. Fire.

Ms. Stone set him aside, giving him his own desk, with room for his own books, against the back wall of the classroom. I always let Lucas manipulate me with his often quite reasonable demands (“Mr. Arp, it just seems like an abusive and cruel thing to not let me go to the bathroom when you know I haven’t gone in over an hour, and you’ve seen me drinking water”), but Ms. Stone would absolutely ignore him unless he raised his hand and was called on. Her guard was always up with Lucas. If he was out of his seat, she reminded him to sit back down. While he spent a few weeks pushing against her stern authority (I have one image in my head of him walking up and down the halls hollering “I HATE Ms. Stone, I HATE her!”), he eventually learned that he would have to internalize a lot of his behavioral outbursts in order to get what he wanted. A certain, tenuous harmony was thus achieved.

His year with Ms. Fire began with an explosion. On a field trip, he acted out in such a way that it took Ms. Fire, two security guards and two museum staffers to calm him. He was removed from her classroom for a few weeks. When he returned, Ms. Fire set up a similar situation as had Ms. Stone, moving his desk apart and giving him his own space. In fact, her solution was wholly similar to Ms. Stone’s. She would not hear him unless he raised his hand and was called on. I remember once watching him repeat over and over: “Ms. Fire, Ms. Fire, Ms. Fire, are you deaf? Are you deaf, Ms. Fire?”

Yet in Ms. Fire’s class, this same solution felt more exclusionary than it had in Ms. Stone’s class. You see, Ms. Stone is deaf to every child who does not raise his or her hand. Ms. Fire, alternatively, runs her class in a much more fluid, conversational manner, incorporating even muttered asides into the general flow. In this situation, Lucas seemed very much like the uninvited, the outsider.

I think this makes these two approaches a bit clearer to me: Ms. Stone runs her classroom as if every student could, potentially, be a Lucas. She simply does not allow room for outbursts. In Ms. Stone’s world, there is the task at hand; anything extraneous, be it brilliant, cruel, funny, awkward or dangerous, is nipped in the bud. Ms. Fire, on the other hand, creates a world in which the extraneous is included as part of the substance of learning. Yet her world does not allow for Lucases.

Philosophically, I think that I agree with Ms. Fire. Mistakes, frustration, jokes and play should be a part of every child’s learning experience. They should be a part of every day of their lives. But I am so afraid of Lucases, I am so conditioned by the explosions that I have had to quell, the fights that I have had to break up, that I act much more like Ms. Stone. And this is surprising, truly, because in my wildest dreams I never thought that I would be this kind of teacher.