Education Memoir

The Day I Got It All Wrong

photo from goldsardine at

When I teach, I come to class prepared. In fact, I sometimes come to class with a Plan A, Plan B and an Emergency Back-Up Plan. I think this stems from the days when I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. Case in point: Many years ago, when I was just starting out, students were completing their last day of oral presentations. One girl was standing up before the class doing her thing and a small group of boys were being – well, let’s just say, a little bit disruptive. Nothing major. They just weren’t really interested in the symbolism that she had found so riveting in Ordinary People.

I tried to get the attention of one of the boys. No luck. I tried to make eye contact with another. Nothin’. Finally, I took my pen – a Precise V5 extra fine tip pen in hand and attempted to throw it so that it would hit the main offender: Let’s call him Hugo. It should be noted here – and you can’t make this stuff up – that Hugo just so happened to have one good eye, having lost the other eye several years earlier although I never found out the circumstances surrounding how it had happened. Anyway, I tried to aim for Hugo’s leg – to get his attention without disrupting the entire class. I figured he’d feel the pen tap his leg, look at me, I’d give him “the death eye” and he’d stop screwing around. It seemed foolproof.

I don’t know how it happened because I usually have pretty good aim, but anyone who was in the class that day would vouch for the fact that the pen did not hit Hugo on the leg. That pen had a mind of its own and fueled by green ink, it launched itself upwards right into Hugo’s face just below (or maybe above?) his good eye.

Hugo stood up before the entire class holding his face, “What the hell are you are doing?” he shouted (and with good reason). “You could have blinded me?” And with that, Hugo announced that he was going to the nurse, the principal and, then, he was going to call his mother.

I had done precisely what I had set out not to do. I had disrupted the class completely. At the time, I pretty sure that I was going to be fired. After apologizing to the student presenter for creating such a commotion, class ended, and I hustled up to the Upper School principal to whom I confessed all my terrible, unforgivable sins. She clucked her tongue at me, told me to call Hugo’s mother, and explain what had happened. Thank goodness, Hugo’s mother was wonderful, supportive, understanding – and even joked that sometimes she wanted to poke out Hugo’s good eye. Later, I also apologized to Hugo who  apologized to me for being disruptive and disrespectful.

I have often thought about my experience with Hugo. As a new teacher, I was trying to figure things out. After throwing a pen at my wonderful student, I learned many things: First and foremost, I learned to never throw anything at anyone in-class ever again.  But I learned a lot of other things, too. Over time, I discovered more creative methods to communicate with students about their behavior without making the class come to a grinding halt.  I learned a great deal about respect that day and how quick-actions can lead to terrible consequences. I learned that sometimes teachers need to apologize to their students because sometimes teachers are the biggest twits of all. We learn from experience.

Oh, and I didn’t  get fired.

What’s a not-so-great thing you did on the job that turned into a huge learning moment?

2 thoughts on “The Day I Got It All Wrong

  1. I know how maddening young boys who don’t listen can be…so I completely sympathize. Your reference to “upper school” makes me think that this was while working a private school? If so, do you feel that the ways of handling these types of issues would of had a different outcome if it had happened at a public school? (I attended both public and private schools growing up so I am aware of the differences). Oh..and I had too many of those not -so great experiences on the job, so I wouldn’t know where to begin. 🙂

  2. This event occurred while working at Metairie Park Country Day School, located in an affluent suburb of New Orleans, Louisiana in the mid 1990s. MPCDS was a utopia for a new teacher. Not only did I have small classes, but I had my own classroom as well as an office space which I shared with my colleagues. The administration and parents were also very supportive. I loved it there, and I am still in touch with many of my former students who now have children of their own.

    I believe the outcome had much to do with the support I received from my principal. I knew she had my back and, if the parent contacted her, she would defend me. I like to believe that positive outcomes are possible in any school where the administrators are brave enough to support its teachers over the sometimes mob-like mentality of parents . . . but I’m not so sure. Parents get so irate these days; it might be easier in some districts to cave and “can the new teacher,” but I was working at a small school a pittance. It would have been difficult to find someone else to replace me in a timely manner without a major disruption to an entire grade of students.

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