A sustained barrage of protests came from a pack of first graders who had crammed to one end of their lunch table to bend my ear. I knew that their teacher, Ms. Coolidge, had put a cork in their discourse since August. Now, they had had it. Today was reckoning day and they would have audience for their complaints.
Gabriel, from beneath the chop of his new-cut bangs, sat up to make a statement:
“Principal, You have to listen. Tomas is making problems! I told the yard lady. She didn’t do nothing!” (He meant Ms. Henley, a yard monitor with barely a pulse. The boy was probably right. . .)
I stepped back, folded my arms, and said, “OK, go. I’m listening.”
Gabriel listed several charges – that Tomas cut him (and everyone) in line all the time, that he had to be first every day, that he always had to win, and so on. The boy tossed in some background information to bring home his case – that even Ms. Warner, the loudest and meanest yard lady of all time, had banned Tomas from playground games. Gabriel announced that she “banned him from the whole universe” as he nodded approval for her actions.
“Tomas and I are supposed to be friends, but today I have to tell on him.”
Tomas’ eyes welled up as he responded: “I do not cut people all the time. Davida does and she blames me.” Rice shot out from between his missing teeth and landed on my lapel. But the hollering did not subside.
Davida, the only girl in the group, retorted with a force that shook her huge pile of curls. “We didn’t do nothing! Stop lying Tomas.” The story flopped back and forth. Ivan, the only silent child, watched as comments ping-ponged across the table.
I thought to shut the kids down with something like a booming “Silence!” to rumble them into submission. But when I paid attention to the substance of what they said, I noticed the argument was getting somewhere. I let it play out, listening until it hurt. First, Tomas took a bold step and decided to “quit lying” as Davida had suggested. He owned up to his antics.
He then asked his pack a simple question: “What do you want me to do?”
“Just don’t be so bossy all the time and let someone else have a turn,” said Gabriel.
Tomas said “OK” and the shouting stopped. Not in a gradual way, but in an instant, as if someone had pulled the plug. Sudden silence made such an impact on the lunch room that other kids also became quiet. Damien, a fuzzy headed boy seated at the middle of room summed it up: “Hey, what’s going on.”
I looked up, recognized my cue, and gave a single direction: “Boys and girls, time to clean up and line up.”
“When I am angry I can rave and riot; And when I am spent, I lie quiet as quiet.” So says James Reeves in “The Wind” and so, spent, done and speechless, we all began anew. Children closed up their lunch boxes and fell into line. I listened to the ringing in my ears, making note of that which transpires when my lips remain closed.