Written November 12, 2005, as part of a SAWP Saturday Seminar on revision.
Prompt: The most difficult experience in the classroom. (While this is probably not the most difficult experience, it was at the very least one of the funniest.)
One afternoon, many years ago, I was teaching my tenth grade English class when the assistant principal came into the room. He was not there to observe, but rather to briefly check in with me about something. I have no idea what we chatted about while the students sat quietly waiting. In fact, the students were eerily quiet, something that should have aroused suspicion about this normally lively and active group of fifteen-year-olds.
At first my attention was focused on listening to the AP, but eventually I began to notice a certain kind of movement among the students—particularly the boys. I could see them over the AP’s shoulder, but I knew I dared not convey to him any signal that would make him turn around and look at them. Perhaps that’s why I began to register their behavior in one part of my brain, while the other focused on the AP’s words.
If he had turned to see what they were doing, he would have been mortified. It must be difficult knowing, or at least believing, that you might be the target of ridicule from the students, but it has to be altogether humiliating to see it in action.
You see, Mr. Bryan’s hair was arranged in the most audacious comb-over that ever graced a human head.
The part, which we normally think of traversing the head from the forehead to the crown, was horizontally drawn across the nape of his neck with a short, one-inch fringe of hair below it. Long hanks of hair were carefully combed upward and arranged, not so artfully, over the top of his head, finally curving to the side as they reached his forehead.
Every boy in my classroom had taken his comb from his pocket and had begun to comb his hair upward from the nape of his neck. (Does this date me to the time when high school boys actually carried combs? Do they still?) Some of the longer-haired boys had brought long strands of hair over their heads and down over their eyes.
I stood transfixed, struggling between awareness of what I could see in my peripheral vision over his shoulder and paying attention to the conversation he had initiated with me and responding coherently. I was terrified that I might do something to send him a signal that something was going on behind his back. What if he turned around and saw them? What would he think? What could I say?
It was all I could do to maintain my composure and to keep his attention fixed on me. I prayed that he would not look at them before he left the room. All of this could have taken no more than five minutes, but it felt like an eternity. I wanted so badly for him to just get out of my room safely.
Fortunately, Mr. Bryan finished his chat with me, and as he left the room, I accompanied him to the door, staying on his left side, away from the class. We managed to cross the distance from my desk to the door without his attention shifting to the students. Perhaps experience had taught him to avoid eye contact with large groups of students.
When the door closed, the students burst out laughing. I simply stared at them, mouth agape, wondering what I could possibly say. Finally, one student asked, rhetorically, I’m sure, but certainly emphatically, “Mrs. M, doesn’t he know what his hair looks like?” I’m not sure exactly what I said, but I know I tried to point out that their behavior could be hurtful and that it would be better if they simply pretended not to notice such things. I doubt that my admonitions had much effect on the students. After all, that comb-over was not only stunning in its creativity, it was so ill-conceived that it invited comment and response.