Friday, January 30, 2009

Tales from the Trenches: The Unpleasant Puddle

by Corey Bunje Bower

It was another ordinary February day at Middle School 135 in the Bronx (which is to say: chaos reigned and tempers flared). I took my class downstairs for gym class and then scampered off to grab a bite to eat. After wolfing down my turkey hero I hurried back to my classroom to prepare for the next period's lesson. A teacher I worked with happened to have just walked in as well.

Much to our dismay, we saw that three of the desks were covered in liquid. "Oh no" I moaned, figuring that some of the older kids had busted into my room during their lunch hour and sprayed Mountain Dew all over the place. I had filed a request months before for maintenance to fix the locks on my classroom doors so that something like this wouldn't happen. For the moment, though, there was only one thing to do -- we grabbed some paper towels and headed over to clean the desk in earnest.

As we surveyed the scene we noticed how wet everything had gotten -- folders, notebooks, backpacks, coats, etc. I wasn't at all happy about this, and to make it even worse the desks belonged to three of my hardest working students. The other teacher started to point out some of the damage while I unrolled the paper towels. I started to mop it up while she picked up a small container brimming with liquid. Then, suddenly, I heard her shriek: "EWWWWWWWWW!" And, with that, she ran out of the room.

"No," I thought, "it can't be." I bent closer to the desks and sniffed. It was! Somebody had peed all over three desks in my room. I soon followed in the run down the hallway.

After washing my heads I tried to figure out what to do next. The period was almost over, but I couldn't possibly let the kids back into the room while it was in this state. I found an Assistant Principal and informed him of the situation. For the first time in my year and a half there, action was swift: maintenance was called, my class was led to the auditorium, and a Dean watched over them until I could make it downstairs.

Rumors were quickly spreading among the members of my class when I reached the auditorium, including a crazy one that somebody's desk had been peed on -- convincing me that this was an inside job and not some rowdy seventh or eighth graders like I'd suspected. I spoke with the kids to see what I could learn while also steadfastly refusing to tell them why we were in the auditorium. In the middle of my Columbo imitation another AP walked in and told me she would watch my class while I spoke with the principal.

I walked into the principal's office and found the person I'd been looking for -- my supervisor, the AP for my section of my building. While seemingly every other administrator had been working to remedy the situation she had been sitting and discussing something with the principal. The principal addressed me: "Mr. Bower, what is going on?" Thinking that she wanted an update on the situation, I told her what had happened.

I was wrong; she didn't want an update of what had happened -- she had meant "what is going on?" in the parental sense, as in "what have you done?" Shocked, I told her that I failed to see how this was my fault -- I was not the person in charge (or, for that matter, even in the room) when it had happened. Apparently, she saw it otherwise. After a little venting, she told me that she would be observing me the next week and that there was a pre-observation letter in my mailbox.

Meanwhile, it didn't take long to get a confession from one of my students once he found out that they were reviewing footage from the security cameras. Apparently he'd asked one of the girls out at lunchtime and she'd turned him down. As retribution, he deemed it appropriate to urinate on her desk and her belongings -- the desks and belongings of the other two students were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (he'd asked to go the bathroom during gym class and, unbeknownst to the gym teacher, had headed for my room instead of the lavatory). For the first time that year, a student from my class was suspended. After five days of sitting at another school he entered my classroom again. One of the girls who'd been victimized grabbed a broomstick but, somehow, I managed to avoid a riot. Both he and the three girls remained in my class for the rest of the year.

Moral of the story: Children can take out their frustrations in odd ways . . . as can principals.
Corey Bunje Bower taught sixth grade in the Bronx from 2004-2006. He is now a Ph.D. student in Education Policy at Vanderbilt University.

Tales from the Trenches is a regular feature on the blog Thoughts on Education Policy that aims to illuminate what it's like to work in a school. All current and former staff members are encouraged to submit their own war stories. Submissions may be sent to corey[at]; submitters must identify themselves, but may remain anonymous or use a pseudonym upon publication.


Anonymous said...

I remember this day very clearly. I remember the expression on the "other teacher's" face as she ran towards the bathroom to clean herself off. This was a typical day in our school unfortunately. As you know, I have many of my own stories. I think we earned some good karma for walking the halls of that building for two years.

Stephen Lentz said...

Classy move on the principal's part. Again, the leadership of city schools proves itself exemplary.

Anonymous said...

Corey: That story is awful (but kind of amusing - thanks for sharing). Can't believe that you had to deal with the mess in your classroom, and then got blamed by the principal! If only other people (non-teachers) could get a whiff of what some of us teachers (and former teachers) have gone through!

Corey Bunje Bower said...

DC: I hope they can through this running feature