A friend who taught at a high school two hours south of my home called me on a Friday morning, in a panic, asking me to please do her a huge favor and lead a storymaking class that afternoon. The desperation in her voice as she explained the situation made it hard for me to say no. The session would be the last class of the day. The eleventh graders had had a substitute teacher for two weeks, who’d suddenly quit because she couldn’t control the class. None of the other teachers wanted to face these students—a group notorious for discipline problems. No one was willing to risk getting a black mark on their record. Reluctantly, I agreed, but to say I wasn’t looking forward to teaching it was an understatement.
I arrived a few minutes before class was scheduled to begin in order to rearrange the seats from one where all the desks faced forward, into a circle. The space was limited and I wasn’t sure all the desks would fit. As I struggled to move one, a large well-built Black student walked in. “What are you doing?” he asked, curious and polite.
“I’m leading a storymaking session for your class and I’d like us to be in a circle if possible.”
“So we can see each other rather than looking at the back of people’s necks.
He shook his head as if this was weird, then, taking his time, checked out the space in the room. “It’s possible. I’ll do it.” In an unbelievably short time, all the desks were in a circle. As students walked in, noticed the new arrangement, and asked what to do, he smiled and said, “Take any seat you like.” At the same time, a few teachers took seats in the back, apparently there to watch what I was going to do, without asking if this was okay with me. Ungenerously I thought, it wasn’t fine for them to teach this class, but it was fine for them to watch me teach. I decided to ignore them.
After introducing myself, I welcomed the students to our storymaking class, asked their names, and gave out finger paints and clay. I began the session by telling them “Ant and Elephant", a story from India, about a group of animals who, after electing Elephant as King, discover he has become a tyrant. All but Ant are afraid to devise a plan to get him to be as kind as he was before he became king.
The students listened respectfully. At the end of the story, I told them they had a minute to make an image and write a few words that came to mind when they thought about the story. After they finished, I said we’d go around the circle and share briefly what had been painted and written. The first few students, obviously uncomfortable, shared, but the next student, looking terrified, shook his head and said, “I can’t,”
The Black student, Thomas, went over to him, put his hand gently on his shoulder and said, “Sure you can. Just show us what you did. It’s okay.” The student, whose fear was palpable, showed his image and read the words he’d written. He looked up at Thomas, then breathed a sigh of relief when the student to his left continued. Thomas returned to his seat.
The next task was for students to sculpt an image of an animal who was or could be in the community of animals and to write a brief statement about how the animal felt and what the animal wished he/she could do to help make Elephant behave as he did before he was elected King. When it was Thomas’s turn, he showed the group his image. “I’m Jerry the Giraffe. I want to help but I don’t have a voice. My words stick in my throat and die. No one knows what I’d like to do if I could.”
I didn’t know anything about Thomas but I sure appreciated his presence in the class. During each activity he encouraged hesitant students and when the class ended, he thanked me for teaching such an interesting class. After his comment I asked the other students to reflect on the session. They talked about how unusual it was and most said they enjoyed making images and writing without worrying about how good it was. As they were leaving, Thomas asked if I’d like him to move the chair/desks back. I said yes and thanked him for his kindness and his help. He grinned, restored the chair/desks to their original position, and left.
I looked at the teachers who all had expressions of disbelief on their faces. When I asked why, a few of them spoke simultaneously. “Do you know who Thomas is?” How was I supposed to know a student I’d just met? I shook my head. “One of them said, “He’s the school bully.”
Shocked, I told them, “He’s a student who feels he has no voice.” I looked at my friend who taught eleventh grade English and said, “I hope you’ll help Thomas find his voice. He needs support.”
“I don’t teach his class. All I can do is tell his teacher when she comes back. I’ll do what I can.”
“He’s asking for help. What about talking to the school counselor?”
“Nancy, it’s one class compared to how he behaves the rest of the time.”
“But if he’s kind and gentle in my class . . .
“Nancy, I’ll do what I can but I’m not his teacher.”
When we talked a few days later she let me know she was tired of talking about Thomas. Since I didn’t work at the school, and didn’t know anyone beside my friend, there was nothing more I could do.
How many students feel they have no voice to express their thoughts and feelings? Who will help them?