This week, I had the opportunity to discuss school horrors with 3 of my clients. One of them was a 45-year-old man who could not handle school because he had to “toughen up” at the age of 4 when his father left home. Another one was a 13-year-old girl who was about to start 8th Grade with a 3rd Grade reading abilities and was convinced she was stupid. The third one was a 48-year-old woman who was told all her life she was stupid, never succeeded in her schooling and thought it was an obstacle to finding a job. All three of them described school as a period of horror when they were scared to be there and when teaching was about pumping information without considering their life’s circumstances – teaching out of context.
During coaching, I usually share some of my personal experience with my clients, so it was very natural for me to share one of my horror stories from school. Unfortunately, I have had too many. When I tell them, I re-live them in my mind and have clear memories of them. I remember the names, the places, the settings and the feelings I have had. I shared these stories because I wanted my clients to consider that in spite the horrors of our childhood, we can all make it. In spite of our parents not protecting us, we can make it. In spite of our teachers not teaching us with the right context in mind, we can be very successful. And happy.
All of them just looked at me quietly for a while. One of them started crying (and it was not the 13-year-old). Another one said, “Ronit, you are making this up”. The third one said, “It’s impossible! You look like you’ve been successful all your life”. Then, all of them left their sessions believing they can make it too.
Gal said I should write it down so more people will be inspired, more parents will be involved in their kids’ schooling and more teachers will teach within their students’ context, so here I am sharing with you my first horror story from school.
When you read this, please keep in mind that I am a teacher myself. I have a Bachelor of Education, I am a journalist, an author, a Justice of Peace, a motivational speaker and a state director for a big educational organization, yet I admit that my school was like a long and scary horror movie.
I grew up in a poor family. My parents had 5 kids, they left home early in the morning to go to work and on most weeks, my dad also had an second job in the evenings. At the beginning of each school year, my dad would buy us 5-7 notebooks – the simplest ones, with no decorations, just a plain brown cover. He also bought us 2 pencils each, one eraser and one sharpener, because it was very expensive to send all 5 of us to school. We knew that these must last us for the whole year and we would not get any more.
My 4th Grade teachers’ name was Hanna. I have had hundreds of teachers during my life and she was by far the worst, so I still clearly remember her last name, how she spoke, how she looked and even her hairstyle.
She hated my guts.
We had a diary for writing our homework and at the bottom of it was a place for the teachers’ comments. Back then, teachers never thought of writing good things and only wrote complaints that we needed our parents to sign as a proof they were aware of the “horrible” things we did at school. My dad was very, very angry when he had to sign one of our teachers’ comments and I was very scared of him.
What do you know, my diary was full of her comments. She wrote, “Ronit did not bring a pencil today”, “Ronit did not have an eraser”, “Ronit’s pencils were not sharpened” or “Ronit talked in class today”. My dad got very angry every time I asked him to sign one of her comments in my diary. I knew he would not buy me a new eraser or a new sharpener, so on top of him being angry with me for getting into trouble, he was angry with me for forcing him to buy me another pencil or whatever I had lost.
Some days, I could not ask him to sign, because he was not home. My mom could not read or write well enough (she went back to finish primary school at the age of 50) so she never signed the teachers’ comments. On those days, I was afraid to go to school, because the teacher would write another comment, saying, “Ronit had a comment yesterday and didn’t show it to her parents”.
My diary was so full of these comments she used the space intended for writing homework. My diary was full of her writing. I hated writing my homework in it, because there was not a page that did not have any comments and my dad’s signature.
One day, sometime around the middle of the year, she came to my desk and looked at me while I was writing in my notebook. It was just an ordinary notebook without any covers and it was pretty messy. When I did not have an erase, I would ask someone to lend me theirs. Unfortunately, this is how she discovered I did not have it and would write yet another comment for my dad to sign, so I stopped asking. The solution I found was to lick my finger and try to rub the writing off page. Sometimes, by mistake, I rubbed it too hard and it made a hole in the page.
That day, she stood there and then she started screaming. Everyone stopped and watched her holding my notebook, screaming and flipping the pages in a rage. “This is not a notebook”, she yelled, “This is not how a notebook should look like. This is disgusting”, and she tore my notebook to pieces and threw it into the bin.
I freaked out. I knew this would go very badly with my dad and he would “kill me” for it. On other years, when we reached the end of the notebook, we would staple or tape additional sheets of paper to the back of the notebook to make it last longer. Without thinking much, crying and hardly able see to what I was doing from so many tears, I went to her desk, where she had the big class diary with the class role, and I tore it to pieces.
You can imagine I was at the principal office in no time. I sat there and cried. My dad was at work, so they called his workplace and asked him to come to the school to pick me up. I thought he would be so upset with me for missing work that I imagined the worst. I heard the principal telling my dad I must apologize to the teacher, but my dad came and he heard what had happened and got mad at the teacher instead.
For 6 months, she had tortured me with her comments and he had told me off. Now, he was upset that she had torn my notebook, because he had worked so hard for it. So he said to the principal that I would apologize only after the teacher apologized for damaging my personal property.
The teacher tried to get her revenge for this humiliation, so she kept writing comments, but from that moment on, my dad refused to sign them. He was so upset with her that he used to say to me, “I’m not signing. Take this back to your teacher and tell her your dad said she’s a <insert graphic label here>”.
Do you know what I did?
I did not say anything, but my life changed from being afraid to come back home to also being afraid to go back to school. Instead of telling the teacher what my dad had said, I said, “He wasn’t home” or “I didn’t show it to him”, which only made her write another note.
Some days, in order to break that cycle, I would beg my older sister, who was in 9th Grade, to forge my dad’s signature. I had to be her slave for days for her to do it for me (I thought that was fair and I appreciated her for it). I was still afraid and my heart would beat fast whenever I showed the signature to the teacher, in case she recognize it was fake. After all, she had seen so many of the real ones, she might be able to tell.
When she gave up on comments in my diary and realized my dad was not signing, she made me stand in the class with my face to the wall for hours, and then, she started sending letters home by post.
This would not be a problem for most kids, because they could just find the letters before their dad got home and get rid of them, by my dad was the postman. He brought the mail with him just before he went out to his second job.
Each letter only got home 2-3 days after she had written it, which gave me some relief for a couple of days, but it forced my dad to sign. The letters upset him even more, because everyone at the post office knew he had gotten a letter from school and that shamed him and our family. I used to be scared out of my mind to face him when he brought one of these letters with him.
Only later on, I learned that my dad and my teacher were fighting with each other over my back. They were using me to abuse each other and making my school life horrible. She probably thought that with her comments, she could make him spend more time with us, pay more attention to us or buy us more equipment, while he just wanted the teachers off his back to allow him to survive working 16 hours every day and to provide enough food for 7 people.
Unfortunately, neither of them considered the impact it had on me.
Some horror schooling experiences are caused by parents, some by teachers, some by friends and some by circumstances. Everyone needs to take responsibility for their part.
If you have a conflict with your child’s teacher, do not be a coward. Never use your child to fight a teacher.
Never say, “Tell the teacher ‘My dad said you’re stupid'”, even if you are only expressing your frustration. Your kids might take you seriously tell the teacher just that. If you are so brave, let’s see you saying it to the teacher’s face.
There is a big chance the teacher is teaching out of context. He or she may not be aware of what happens in your life. Yes, it is their duty to find out, but it is your responsibility as a parent to let them know and ask for their help.
Always protect your kids or things will get out of control. If you find that there is a conflict between your child and a teacher, try to resolve it. If does not work, get your child moved to another class (or school, if you have to).
Always make sure your kids have extra equipment – erasers, pencils, sharpeners and notebooks. School is not easy and they do not have to worry about asking friends for missing items. This makes the teacher think they are talking and whenever they ask for favors, they need to return them. If there is a need, check every evening that they have everything they need for the following day. Kids lose their items. It happens to all of them, so just live with it and help them be more organized as they grow up.
Always consider the child’s life context. Your class is not the only part of the world that exists in their life. If they have a problem, ask yourself what could cause it and how you can help. Take a human interest in your students.
When you send messages home, make sure they are positive. Anything can be stated in a soft and supportive manner if you put your mind to it.
Forget the idea that if you put pressure on the parents, they will make sure the kids learn better. Most of the time, it is the opposite. Fear is part of many kids’ life and creating more fear just makes the problem worse.
If you think parents are a pain (some may seem to be), keep your thoughts to yourself. Never use the kids to overcome your anger with their parents. It is not their fault – kids do not choose who to be born to.
If a child is dropped off late in the morning, never punish the child. This is something the parents do. Do not encourage children to lie about why they are late. They would rather say they woke up late than tell you their mom is in total panic in the mornings and screams for everyone to get ready for over an hour.
Remember, kids are not poor against you, they are not afraid against you, they are not hungry against you and they are not late against you. If they could do it all differently, they probably would, if only to stop having a frightening schooling experience.
Parents and teachers, you can make a difference, a huge difference! Happy schooling is our goal, because kids who love to learn can do anything.
This post is part of the series School Horrors: