I meet Tanya on the first day of school. She walks in and glances nervously around the room. I get up from the circle of chairs that the rest of us are sitting in and introduce myself. She nods hello and chooses a seat in the corner, away from everyone else.
“Hey, Tanya, come join us in the circle,” I say.
“Naw, I’m good, miss, thanks.” She goes into her bag and starts digging around, trying to signal to me that the conversation is over. I wait until she finishes digging out her lipstick to continue:
“I know it can be hard on a first day to put yourself out there.” She stares at me with a deadpan expression. I try again, “Today’s my first day, too. And for those four folks over there.” I motion to a small group of boys who look kind of uncomfortable while the other returning students laugh and joke and catch up about their summers. “C’mon over and help us with the poster assignment.”
Without any change in her expression or breaking eye contact, she drops the tube of lipstick back into the bag and loudly snaps the clasp shut. “I’m good. I’m going to stay here today.” She stares directly at me to see what my next move will be. I weigh my options. It is my first day at a new school; I’m not up for a fight, and besides I have no social capital—not even with my co-teacher—at this point to engage in a power struggle and win.
“Ok, I can give you some room today,” I say, smiling slightly, “But tomorrow we’re gonna need you in the circle.”
“Whatever you say, miss.”
“My name is Rachel, dear. Please follow along from where you’re sitting.”
Things don’t get much better than that for the remainder of the time she is at our school. One of my strengths as a teacher is being able to connect with students, and see the good in the hardest places. I am usually able to build trust rather quickly, as I demonstrate to them that I have strict rules and high expectations for a reason. That when I’m giving them a hard time it’s coming from an ethic of respect and care, not humiliation and punishment.
But for the next two years, Tanya and I battle it out, sometimes once a day. In a good week, we get by with only a couple conflicts. She often storms out of our Crew room after I make a request for her to stop cursing or making a face at students while they are talking. While she lacks self-awareness (I began to understand through our mediations and calmer conversations that she sometimes doesn’t realize how her actions are interpreted by others), she is emotionally intelligent. She uses this, though, to manipulate and bully other students. She is really really good at pushing buttons and identifies them in people quickly. When I am working with her I need to re-center myself often and draw up from deep wells of empathy that I’m not sure go deep enough to influence our interactions.
We do have a few experiences, though, where I am able to find some common ground. One of our responsibilities as advisors is to be present at re-entry meetings if kids are suspended. Tanya often gets into altercations with other girls, and this time around it gets physical. I am in the main office with the principal, Tanya, and her mother, as well as the other girl’s advisor and mother. We start talking about what happened and what the expectations are moving forward. I have not talked with her mother at length before; she never comes to conferences and only sometimes returns my calls. I am glad to see her here and hope we can make some inroads.
I laid out my expectations for what we need to see moving forward and turn to Tanya’s mom. “Ms. Johnson, are these expectations clear from your point of view? Anything you want to add, change or take away?”
She turns to look at her daughter with such disdain, I think I stop breathing for a few seconds. She pauses before speaking, screwing her face into an expression that resembles experiencing a very foul smell: “It doesn’t matter what you say to her. She’s good for nothing. She won’t do it. How dare you make me come here today, Tanya. I should be out working, putting food on the table, not here dealing with you and your nasty mouth.”
In this moment, my frustrations with Tanya go away. I feel so protective of her I want to hug her, physically shielding her from the awful words that continue to come out of her mother’s mouth. It clicks for me in this moment, why she is so brutal. Noah Levine, a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, says that hurt people hurt people. Never had I experienced such a stark example of this as a teacher than I do sitting across from Tanya. She cowers ever so slightly under her mother’s words, but soon hardens again. I don’t think anyone else notices the break in her bored expression.
I wish I could say that our shared experience of growing up with an angry mother gave us a common ground from where to connect; that there was a real breakthrough after that or something. But there isn’t. There is a short time period during her second year at school where she falls in love and she really seems to have changed. She is enthusiastic, helpful, open and witty. It’s unbelievable, really. But it only lasts a couple months. They break up and she goes back to waging her own private war against the rest of the world.
What is interesting about my student-teacher relationship with Tanya is that in my math class, she is a model student: engaged, hard-working, respectful, inquisitive, and committed. But in the Crew room, no matter how great things go the period before, she publicly states her hatred of the school, and me in particular. It’s a long year, and we get to experience different levels of success through contracts, social worker interventions, class excusals, and all out blow-ups. I am relieved when we get to the end of the year and I am able to place her into a different Crew, with a male teacher who is willing to work with her.
When we get back in September, I receive word that Tanya is transferring to night school. This makes a lot of sense, since she hasn’t earned more than one credit since last September and has burnt bridges with many of her peers. I can’t say I am sad to see her go, either. When she comes back the last day to make the transfer, the social worker asks me if I want to come down and say goodbye to her. I quickly decline. I wish her well, but do not have a desire to speak with her. She was the only student in my career that felt truly hard for me to love. I did everything I could think of to work with her and then some. I have absorbed her anger and abuses too many times to be able to reach out at this point. I appreciate her intelligence and strength, and I really hope that she finds happiness and peace. In a way, though, I feel defeated by her. She seems to disprove my theory that every student will bring positive energy to the community if you give them the space and support to express their goodness. I quietly bid her goodbye in my head, and continue with my morning paperwork.
A couple hours later, I am in town meeting with my Crew when the social worker knocks quietly at the door. She pokes her head in and makes eye contact with me, waving me out into the hall.
“Hey, what’s up?” I ask.
“Tanya’s here. She’s been begging me to say goodbye to you. Will you come down to my office?”
I sit there a moment, considering. I don’t remember the last words Tanya spoke to me at the end of the previous school year, but I’m sure it was something on the negative side of neutral, which is the best she can do with me when she is trying her hardest. I sigh, confused but open. “Okay. Sure. I will walk down with you.”
When we get close to the social worker’s office, Tanya steps outside the door. “Good morning, Tanya. Good luck at your new—”
I don’t get to finish my sentence because she slams into me with a big, hard hug. It lasts a couple seconds before she pulls away and looks up at me. “Thanks, Rachel. For everything. I will miss … being here.” She shifts her eyes awkwardly down towards her feet.
I go from confused to absolutely stunned, but I don’t show it to Tanya. The social worker and I meet eyes. She’s been telling me for the last two years that in spite of all the struggle, I was making an impact. I didn’t believe her until now. She gives me a gentle “I told you so” wink. I smile and look down at Tanya. “You’re welcome. Good luck at your new school. I look forward to hearing from you when you get your diploma. You’re too smart not to. Take good care of yourself, okay?” She nods. I wave to the social worker and return to the town meeting, still not really knowing how to feel.
This story is taken from a longer article by the same author, “Keepin’ It Movin’: Portraits From a New York City Transfer School.” It’s originally published in Schools: Studies in Education. Vol 10.1, Spring 2013.