Our National Tantrum


I love my students.

I always have. It's what brought me back to teaching after my long side trip into ministry, and it's what's kept me teaching through steep professional learning curves, lay-offs, underemployment, and problem students.

That last item is what occasions this post: some students are hard to love. And yet I love them all the same.

Teaching music in elementary schools, I see all age levels from kinder to tween. Over the years, I've created my own categories to help me deal with discipline problems. Some children are attention-seekers who just want to know the teacher cares about them. Often I can channel this need into performing a simple task: have one of them be the first to model a clapping game with me, and they'll be on board for the rest of the lesson. Others are looking for the firmness they don't get at home. I have to be stricter with these children than I personally like to be, but so long as am intentional about tamping down any anger I may be feeling, and still including them in the lesson, they eventually come around. And then there are the feral children.

These are the hardest nuts to crack: children who have no sense of how to behave in a school setting, who run rampant through class, assaulting other children, racing around the teaching space (much more of a problem in the gym I'm teaching in than it was in my tiny classroom in Hood River), treating music like their own personal jungle gym. Most of these children are kindergarteners who did not attend preschool, and thus have not yet been socialized to an educational setting. Occasionally they're older: I've had a number of first graders who fit the model, and in one case, a second grade, a recent immigrant from Albania who appeared not to speak any English. With time, these children become more socialized, are integrated into the learning community, and mature into normal developmental patterns.

As hard as it is to deal with this last group, I still care for them. I frequently use traffic cones to divide the gymnasium into more manageable areas, a concept that is still lost on some of the kinders. Friday, during a kindergarten class, I was addressing a minor blow-up in one corner of the gym, and turned around to find a half dozen boys performing pole-dancing moves on one of those cones. It's heart-breaking to imagine what must be going on in their homes, and as shocked as I was by their behavior, I mostly felt compassion. (And not to worry, I also wrote them up so their classroom teacher can make some inquiries.) When small children are aggressive or disruptive, it usually means something's going on, or has previously happened, in their home lives that needs to be addressed, and I certainly can't blame them for whatever led to this behavior.

And then there was the dynamic duo.

Last year, in Banks, there were two high-risk students who landed in the choir because there was no other class that would take them. They constantly called attention to themselves, and no amount of intervention with administrators or parents made a difference. They were frequently suspended for a variety of reasons, including using drugs on campus (which helps explain their frequent "party hearty" behavior in choir). Toward the end of their time in choir, they seemed to be playing a game to see how quickly they could get thrown out of class. Whenever they were, the rest of the class would visibly relax, eager to finally get down to the business of rehearsing--though by then I was usually a wreck inside.

After a semester of constant struggle, they finally left the choir, but so did almost half the remaining students, completely burned out on the experience. The remaining nine worked hard through the second semester, and came close to qualifying for the state choir festival. I'm very proud of them for that, but when I think about choir last year, mostly I feel bruised. Over the summer, I got a drunk call from the duo--in one of my many efforts to alter their behavior, I had left my cell number on the voice mail of one of their parents (she never called back)--and found myself experiencing some post-traumatic shock.

And yet, still, I can't help thinking there must have been something in those children's lives that put them on this path, that has festered and gone septic and will continue dragging them down: some incident of abuse, some pattern of neglect, some trauma they may not even remember, something that just really is not their fault. I worry about them, what sort of lives they have ahead of them as they burn out school after school, leaving a trail of wounded classmates, teachers, counselors, social workers, parole officers, sponsors, until finally--if they're lucky, and it's not too late--they hit bottom and begin to heal. Whatever happened to trigger this pattern of destruction, they didn't choose it, and for that I cannot help but pity them.

Which brings me to the House of Representatives and, more specifically, the Tea Party contingent of the Republican caucus.

From its first primal protestations against the Bush-instigated banks bail-out, the Tea Party has seemed more aptly named for a favorite game of toddlers than a colonial act of civil disobedience. (They also seem to enjoy the game of dress-up, but that's a whole other story.) Their know-nothing rants against health insurance reform succeeded in turning what could have been a watershed event in the expansion of democracy into a half-decade (so far) slog toward incremental improvements, with the one truly revolutionary piece--and I mean revolutionary in the way that "no taxation without representation" was revolutionary--so riddled with concessions to the industry that the online roll-out broke the servers. The Affordable Care Act is the chimera it is due to futile efforts to appease the Tea Party, futile because, in the end, all their protests were, and continue to be, an infantile tantrum.

When it became clear the screaming would not succeed, that the legislation had become law, that the ruthless sine quo non of democracy, putting it to a vote, was never going to break in their favor, they moved on to the final resort of the tantruming toddler: violence. For a few years, I had a toddler in my home who, in the depths of a tantrum, would throw furniture. Seriously. After 40 attempts to overturn the ACA, the Tea Party started throwing fiscal furniture.

When a toddler is endangering the other children with his or her violent behavior, the teacher or parent has no alternative but to shut things down. There is no negotiating with a tantrum, even if it is based on a reasonable complaint. When children begin screaming, when all semblance of civilized behavior is jettisoned in favor of running and pushing and hitting, it's time to isolate the perpetrators. In my classroom, a time out usually takes care of such behaviors, but in rare instances, I have to call in help. So far this year, I've had two children removed from my class, and they've both come back the next time in a far more cooperative frame of mind. In the case of those high school bullies disrupting the choir, it was a trip to the office--which, unfortunately, just seemed to pour gasoline on the flames of their year-long tantrum. One thing that is accomplished by such measures is bringing the parent into the situation, which can often make a huge difference--though, again, not in the case of those high school students.

The Tea Party faction on Capitol Hill got its time out in the form of a government shutdown. Sixteen days of plummeting polls and the threat of national default seems finally to have gotten through to the overly permissive parents in this scenario, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House John Boehner, and finally the Tantrum Partiers were voted down. And several wasted billions later, the government is again operating--for now.

I don't know how long this will last. The "concession" our nation's principal, President Obama, made was to negotiate with the tantrumers. Speaking as both a parent and a teacher, I'm extremely skeptical this will avoid another explosion. When toddlers get stuck on having to have their way about something they simply cannot have, the only real solution for the adults in the room is to create some kind of work around. In a classroom, that can be a difficult thing to work out. It has to be something that will distract the problem children from their rage long enough to get the lesson back on track. The one thing that cannot be done is to reward the tantrum with attention. The time for attention is after the flames have died out; that's when talking about whatever caused the tantrum in the first place can yield productive results.

The workaround in Congress is far easier to accomplish, because it's been there all along: allow the House of Representatives to be truly representative. Instead of forcing the Republican caucus to act as a bloc, let each Congressperson vote on every issue. This violates the so-called "Hastert Rule," a Republican principle that blocks the Democrats from any kind of meaningful participation, and it may endanger Boehner's Speakership, but really, people: how many billions is that worth?

That is, ultimately, how the shutdown ended: Democrats and moderate Republicans were allowed to finally vote on a clean resolution to fund the government. The Tea Party screamed bloody murder, then went off to pout. They're still out there, and there's no guarantee they won't try exactly the same thing early next year, when the debt ceiling comes up yet again. The long term solution is, of course, simply to remove the dangerous weapon from the playroom, and repeal the very notion of a debt ceiling, but that will take far more adult behavior from everyone to realize.

I'm off to school now. Hopefully my students will behave with more maturity than the Tea Party has ever demonstrated. I fully expect they will.

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