Monday, January 23, 2017

The First Rule, a Pre-History

1. It's not about you. 

Rule #1 almost ended my first marriage before it began.

I was twenty-five, a second-year English teacher in a small, northeast Kansas town. I carried my heart on my sleeve and struggled with classroom discipline as many young teachers do. The students, after all, were only seven years younger than me, and many seniors had already kicked me around the previous year as juniors. The slippery slope of taking everything personally called like Homer's sirens.

When they misbehaved, I struggled. I raised my voice. I yelled. I made hollow threats and moved desks, sent students to the office for any provocation, and gave them plenty of ammunition to "stick it" to Mr. Polson. I did everything wrong--especially the amount of their baggage I decided to carry on my back. Everything became personal. Every voice out of compliance slapped me across the face; every touch of disrespect to anyone cut dagger-sharp into my gut.

I had it all wrong.

The truth comes easily after one's eyes open. All classroom discipline problems germinate from anger, frustration, and stress students carry into the room and/or baggage from home or their social lives. In my novice classroom, they translated that stress and baggage into rude comments, insults to me and other students, jeers and foolish acts and just about any other means to push my proverbial buttons, but none of it was personal. Stumbling at both life and teaching, I was the one who took everything personally,  but it never started that way.

Back then, I didn't know. I was an easy target who didn't understand one of the most basic principles of living a good life.

I carried my frustration home and dumped all that inherited baggage on my fiance, Aimee. One day, she'd had enough. We went for a walk in a small, local arboretum, moonlight and stars playing on a pond. There, in the November chill with black lines of trees looking on, she gave me the ultimatum.

"Stop complaining about the students' behavior. Do something about it, but stop complaining. I don't want to marry someone who carries all their stuff home. It's not personal, you know."

I still remember those words. They crystallized in my brain. They tore at my heart. I'd already had one failed engagement, and now I felt the edge of this one slip beneath my feet. She hadn't uttered the sacred mantra of Rule #1, but her words came close. The meaning was there.

She could have easily said it: It's not about you. 

Working on my classroom structure would take time. I couldn't fix student behavior or classroom environment overnight. But something did change inside me. Motivated by fear or love or a little of both, I sloughed away the baggage my students brought to class. No matter how wicked those students, their misbehaving really wasn't about me personally. A  switch had been thrown deep inside and I would never be the same again in the classroom. Angry commands melted into patience and empathy. Demanding what I wanted morphed into quietly but consistently waiting for students to demonstrate compliance with my requests. Classroom expectations became clear. Over the years, it became easier for all of us, students and teacher alike.

It would be another eight years before Rule #1 formally came into my life, but I'd learned a lesson and learned it well.

Aimee and I were married the following summer, and Rule #1 helped me through the darkest parts of the journey ahead.


Brant Watson said...

We were model students who were never frustrating in any way whatsoever. In fact, I only have memories of being classroom angels of the highest order.

Any perceptions to the contrary were in fact our attempts to teach you the value of rule number one. We were teenagers then and as such had already accumulated all of the knowledge necessary for life, including rule number one itself.


Aaron Polson said...

I could always count on you. #alternativefacts indeed.