Empty Chair

A Suspension of Time and School

Mr. Vilson 9 Comments

Empty Chair

Empty Chair

You weren’t supposed to come back.

Even though you were on our school’s roster, rumor had it that your guardian put you in a different school, and you’d no longer half-bounce into my class, calling one of your friends a “nigga-what-the-fuck” for something they allegedly did to you.

Before you came back, you only knew me as the second math teacher, the Black-possibly-Dominican guy who came in to help your math teacher at the time. You’d go off on one of your classmates, and I’d refocus you with a “Why are you doing that?! You’re so close, and you’re not even going to finish?!” You’d get back to work and go “Alright, fine” and get back to work.

Your reputation preceded you long before eighth grade, in hallway fights and missed classes, in snickers and whole period meetings, in Blackness, in label. Some inferred that you and others like you were a social experiment, opining loudly that perhaps you have no business in a regular classroom.

Fast-forward to last week, when your appearance set off an ominous commotion, a reaction perhaps set on by things that transpired outside the classroom. Now as the main teacher in the room, I acknowledged your return with a “Hello, young man. Welcome back,” with a gravitas that signaled to others that they ought to focus on their current task.

As I approached you in the class, I noticed the din hadn’t settled down much, but you looked ready to learn whatever it is this guy wanted to teach. For a time, sitting next to you and two of my other struggling students around your desk meant more than what the other 20 students had to do. 15 were genuinely focused on completing the assignment, five of them did a good job of pretending, three worked with my co-teacher. Two or three openly pondered why you’d show up, possibly plotting.

“OK, so young man, here’s what you missed. If you look at this graph …”

“Mr. Vilson, I don’t want to do work,” he politely retorts.

“I get it, but you can do it. Let’s go. So anyways, here are some points …”

“Wait, the other teacher’s not here?”

“Nope. Now we have Mr. Vilson.”

“Yes!”

The other students in my small group had mixed reactions to your exclamation, but at least I hooked you in. For the time being.

We get to the crux of my lesson, sans a-ha moments and quasi-discovery. A week’s worth of lessons compressed into ten minutes. You’re trying hard to retain it, but you’re farther removed by the minute, a palpable agita festers in the room, elements seemingly out of my control.

While I refuse to share what happens only a few seconds after, I knew what would occur. What people outside of schools sometimes forget is that teachers can only control the 45-90 minutes a day we have with our students. The first activities, routines, and seating arrangements of the class accompanied by our lesson plans and conclusions serve as the bookends to what a class session might look like. Students carry luggage much heavier than their book bags, a set of issues that my pleas and advises can’t solve so readily.

Sitting down with students, we as teachers can even suspend time for them, create a hub that lets them detach themselves from their other worries. Such a hub only exists in the mind, though, a fragile force field interrupted spontaneously.

When I was done, I realized just how much potential you had for excellence. For a minute there, during that suspension, I had the student I thought I would inherit. Now, we all have to suspend these hopes and let disappointment sit where you just did.

Mr. Vilson, who wants to teach better …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 9

  1. Carrie Kamm

    This post is really sitting with me. The past few weeks at my school have been tough. There was a fight one day after school as some boys were getting on the school bus (the bus that takes them to their neighborhood; crossing gang turf and beefs) and it shook us. We really do try and create these spaces in our rooms-our school, where students can put aside the boulders they carry to focus on being kids and learners. The thing is the boulders are their lives and setting them aside is sometimes not possible. At least with boulders you can put them down, but sometimes the problems seem more like tentacles-squeezing the possibilities from our students lives as we pull and fight to loosen their grip.

  2. Randy Seabrook

    You capture the reality of life in a classroom with your students so effectively. You were able to capture the frustration and love we live with everyday trying to create that space for our students. Thank you for this.

  3. Post
    Author
    Jose Vilson

    Thank you all for your comments. Hoping I also convey that the kid isn’t perfect, either. Unfortunately, events conspired so I could never know his potential …

  4. John Dunn

    Been there and your post got me feeling that frustration again. In a good way, remembering that while it’s frustrating to have your efforts not pay off immediately, you know you can’t stop trying. Keep doing what you’re doing.

  5. Jennifer Leung

    I taught an eighth grade boy whose bottled anger made it hard for him to bear living in his own skin. The discomfort of his rage boiled and made him slouch and clench fists. He only threatened to hit me once, but that was enough. I was a new teacher and at a loss to reach him. After he started high school, the rage controlled him and he was first transferred to an alt program, then dropped out altogether. Five years later he came back to my classroom to pick up his younger sister from school. He was calmer, more centered than I had ever seen him. He told me about getting his GED, working as a landscaper–and moving up from simply hauling materials and digging holes to actually doing some of the design work. The pride and light in his eyes told me he knew how far he had come. I will always remember him–this student who kept me after school until the sun was starting to set, just to tell me he was doing ok now. Just to say hello. I hope your student will carry the encouragement you gave him into his future and find himself come out the other side more whole, less burdened.

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