When I was living in NYC I made my living as a teaching artist in the public schools.
I was fairly young and ready to take on anything that came my way, including rowdy young ruffians making their way through the New York City Public School System.
My favorite and most difficult job was teaching leadership skills at an elementary school using an arts oriented curriculum.
I was assigned to work with a second grade class.
Not 10th grade, or 7th grade, or even 5th grade.
But 2nd grade.
7-8 years old.
4 feet tall.
I had about 12 kids in my classroom.
And it was…intense.
Chairs were thrown, paper was ripped from the walls, physical fights broke out one after the other after the other.
One cold and wintery day, one of the dads snuck into the class and began to throw ice balls at the kids.
(I tend to exaggerate when I tell stories, and this is not an exaggeration. All of a sudden he was in the classroom with a bucket full of ice balls - not snow balls, ice balls — throwing them at the kids and laughing every time he hit one of the them. I must have blocked out the rest of that day, because I have no recollection of how I got him out of there).
As the only adult in the class, besides the ice ball throwing dad I just mentioned, I was at a total loss of what to do.
And there was absolutely no support from the school.
At one point I saw another teacher pick up a kid and throw him, really hard, against the wall.
When I went to the principal to report the incident, she said “Was there blood? No blood? What’s the problem then?”
So one day, I am in the class, chairs are being thrown and paper is being torn from the walls, as usual, when out of the blue all of the girls get down on their hands and knees and begin to crawl around the room meowing and pawing at the air like cats.
And what do I do?
I send the girls to the office for detention and a pink slip.
Not the boys who are throwing the chairs and tearing down the walls, but the girls who are meowing like kitty cats.
What the hell was that about?
And I am ashamed to admit that at one point I came inches away from grabbing a kid by the collar and lifting him right off the ground.
I didn’t do it, but holy mackerel, I was close.
I sucked at being a teacher.
Yeah, the circumstances were hard and less than ideal, but my skill level was so low, I just could not figure how to navigate the situation.
There was a lot I learned that year working with those kids, and by the end we sort of fell in love with each other.
We began to have some fun and we were able to explore and create together because of a simple exercise my roommate told me about:
I would have the kids sit in a circle and one at a time each child would make eye contact with the person sitting to their right and say “Good morning Jimmy, how are you today?”
And Jimmy would also have to make eye contact and say “Thank you for asking Brianna. I am feeling sad today (or happy or angry or whatever it was they were feeling).
And then Jimmy would look to the person to his right and begin the process all over again.
The first few weeks of doing this were hellish.
Chairs were still being thrown and fights were still breaking out, but I was able to get the girls to sit with me, make eye contact, and ask each other how they were doing in a very formalized manner, by bribing them with the promise that they could be cats when we were done.
Slowly, one by one, the boys started to get curious and come over to see what we were doing.
By the end of the year, if I skipped over this exercise, the kids begged me to let them sit in a circle, make eye contact, and ask each other how they were doing.
The exercise evolved on its own and we began to extend it to include asking each other more questions and beginning to share things from our lives
A ton of other things happened with that group of kids: like the boy who whispered for me to slip him some pink construction paper when no one else was looking; or when that same boy did a charade of what he wanted to be when he grew up. His charade was simply to sit quietly, swing his legs, and whistle. When we finally gave up and weren’t able to guess what his charade was, he looked at all of us with pure exasperation and said “Couldn’t you see that I was sitting on a big block of gold, getting rich”; or, the girl who sang the most beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace while standing in the broom closet during the talent show because she was so shy.
But the most amazing thing, was that just by looking at each other and saying “Hey, how are you doing today” it made it possible for us to find our way as a class.
I have to keep reminding myself of that when I get overwhelmed and am drenched in my own insecurities and judgements.
I have to remind myself of that when I feel unseen.
I have to remind myself of that when I have no idea what I'm doing.
I have to remind myself of that when I'm stumbling and falling.
And I have to remind myself of that when I'm troubled by the ways of the world.
So your dance mission for the week is to make eye contact with someone you wouldn’t normally make eye contact with, and then ask them how they are doing today.
Do it once a day for a whole week and see how it goes.
Tell me about your experience by commenting below and then if you wish, share this post with one of your really amazing teachers.
With Warmth and Jivey Vibes,
Joanna and The Agitators
sweetly agitating/persistently upending
ps. Glen and I will be backpacking in Utah next week, so the next newsletter won’t be coming out until Wednesday, April 1st.
pps. The dance classes are all almost full at this point.
If you haven’t signed up yet, and you want to take a class, go to one of the links below or email me so I can get you registered.