Room 376 is a quiet eighth-grade classroom. We have just come back from spring vacation. Suddenly-
The door slams open with such force that the windows shake. In walks, no, in struts a skinny boy, who exclaims:
“Hey hey hey homies, it’s me, Michael. I’m the new kid in school.”
I have to tell you, from the point of view of a teacher, it is never a good sign when the kids announce themselves.
Our aging security guard Mr. Washington arrives minutes after Michael. Although Mr. Washington is wearing the uniform of all Chicago Public School security guards, he looks more grandfatherly than authoritative. He gives Michael a light smack on the arm.
“Boy, Is that how you enter a classroom?”
“What? I’m just introducing myself.”
Mr. Washington hands me a folder overflowing with paper all about Michael. He shakes his head and says, “Sorry, Ms G.” As he leaves, he gently shuts the door behind him.
“Welcome to our classroom, Michael.” I say, “Latoya, raise your hand please. Michael, would you sit in the empty seat behind Latoya?”
Michael gives me a military-style salute, and then high-fives his way down the aisle. He stops when he reaches Latoya’s desk. He looks her up and down, and then with a smile on his face, turns to the class and says:
“Yea, I think I’m going to like it here.”
(This is the last quiet moment in Room 376.)
“Ms. Genelly, Michael is throwing spitballs!”
“What, you can’t prove it was me.”
“Ms. Genelly,” Latoya screams, “Michael will not leave me alone!”
“Michael, sit down now.”
“What? I was just…”
“Michael, sit down now.”
Michael smacks his gum loudly, smiles, then gives the child in front of him a jab in the ribs.
“Okay, okay, I’m going. Shoot, you don’t have to yell.”
Michael has a hard first week at school. In the cafeteria, a food fight breaks out after Michael throws green beans at a kid across the table from him. He is caught placing thumbtacks on the seat portion of his classmates’ desks. Despite his attempts at friendship, the other kids seem to be avoiding him and the chaos that follows.
“Maybe it’s a transition problem?” I wonder out loud. “Transferring from one school to another is often traumatic for kids, and causes them to act out.”
I begin reading the large folder filled with paper about Michael, in hopes of finding clues to try to help him adjust. It reads:
“Ward of the State of Illinois. Mother dead, father unknown, two younger brothers all in separate foster placements. This is Michael’s fourth school this year.”
I close the folder.
I will have more patience, I promise myself.
I mentally devise new strategies to reach Michael, and then comes Art.
I am not an art teacher but with new budget cuts I become one. Once a week, I search for ways to let the kids express themselves creatively. It turns into a kind of mixed bag of tricks as I desperately search for new ways to get the kids involved. On this particular day, the classroom is controlled chaos as kids artistically try to answer the question, “What makes you happy?”
In one corner, a group of boys work on creating a 3-D soccer stadium made out of cardboard and foam. Tomás is making a model car out of clay. A group of girls giggles as they create a rap song all about the joys of shopping. Michael? He just sits at his desk, arms crossed, showing no indication of working.
“Michael, you need to decide what you want to do. What makes you happy?”
“Come on Michael, work with me here.”
Michael sits, shaking his head. Finally, he relents.
“I don’t know- watching TV, hanging with my homies, visiting my brothers.”
“Ok, great, that’s a start.”
I am accompanying Michael to the art table when Cynthia grabs my attention – her toothpick Willis Tower is starting to collapse.
“Help, Ms G.”
I respond immediately, trying to hold up one end of the collapsing tower while Michael cracks jokes.
“Earthquake! Earthquake! The Willis Tower is collapsing. Watch out below!”
“Michael, you are not helping. Go check out the art table and see what kind of supplies you might want to use. I’ll be there in a second.”
Michael moves slowly to the table. He picks up the scissors, the glue, the paint. Nothing seems to grab his imagination. Finally, he eyes the glitter. He smiles.
Michael begins unscrewing the caps on the sparkling containers. First he pours the red glitter into his pocket, then the green, the orange, the purple, and finally the gold.
“Hey y’all, this is what makes me happy. ”
Like a top or maybe a whirling dervish, Michael begins spinning around and around. The kids all scramble to move out of his path. Michael begins moving faster and faster. With every turn, he releases fistfuls of glitter into the air. The classroom seems frozen in time as bands of color float through the air. The sun’s rays hit the colorful twinkling pieces of metal and for one magical moment, it is beautiful. It is as if a rainbow has exploded in my classroom. And then Michael stops spinning, and time begins again. We spend the rest of the afternoon picking glitter out of everyone’s eyes and hair.
“What,” Michael complains, “you told me I should do something that makes me happy. Rainbows make me happy.”
I have to admit, this was a pretty good piece of performance art.
Two weeks after the rainbow explosion, Michael once again transfers schools. One day he is in class, the next he is gone. We never see Michael again. Room 376 returns to a quiet, well-run classroom. I sometimes wonder, what ever happened to Michael? Did grown-up Michael find his way to make a good, productive life? I hope so. Life without Michael was easier, but I have to admit, maybe not quite as magical.
Karen Genelly is retired Chicago Public School teacher and counselor who enjoys telling stories, especially about her time working in schools. She is a native Chicagoan who gives architecture tours on the Chicago River, who never gets tired of extolling the virtues of the city.