Symphony 73


There was a poster on the wall in every classroom at Kiernan School which read, “Every student has the right to learn. Every teacher has the right to teach.”

Discipline at Kiernan School worked on the principle that the children could understand this concept if it was taught to them. By the sixth grade, most of them had accepted it. If they argued against reprimands or detentions, it was usually because they didn’t think a situation had been bad enough to warrant the punishment. Most of them accepted the underlying concept.

They accepted it but, being children, they often forgot it.

Neil had not used a formal discipline system in high school, but his students had not been eleven years old. By November, Neil had given out dozens of detentions. Tony Caraveli had gotten four of them, but he had also gotten the message. Jesse Herrera had gotten seven and it had done him no good at all.

In the last days before Christmas, Neil could have given twenty detentions, but in fact he gave none. The children’s minds were far afield, and he could not blame them for it.

Jesse Herrera was a different case. Whatever his problem was, Christmas had nothing to do with it.

Before he got to Neil’s room, Jesse was already in deep trouble. He tripped a teammate in soccer during P.E.. He got two warnings in Mrs. Clementi’s history class. He irritated Glen Ulrich so badly that he gave him a detention and set him outside his room for the last half of the math period. That seemed to undo what little self-control Jesse normally had. In science, he leaped up in the middle of Fiona’s presentation and flew around the room making jet plane sounds and slapping his classmates on the head as he went by. Fiona did not make much use of the detention system; she tended to scream instead. This time she yelled at Jesse for a solid five minutes in a voice that would have cracked polar ice.

It was just a matter of time before reports of his behavior trickled in to Bill Campbell. Each teacher had seen only a piece of the picture, but Bill would see it all, so Jesse’s fate was sealed before he ever came to Neil’s class. And if it had not already been sealed, it soon would have been.

Jesse came into class with a face that would have curdled milk and threw himself into his seat. When Lorraine Dixon sat down in her seat next to him, she eased over as far from him as she could get. This byplay was not lost on Neil. He said to Jesse, “What’s up, Jess? Problems?”

“Lorraine’s bugging me,” Jesse said petulantly.

Neil had a hard time not smiling. Lorraine looked helplessly at Neil, but she was too shy to say anything in her own defense. She did not need to; the idea of her bothering Jesse, instead of the reverse, was too absurd to take seriously.

Neil decided to lighten up the tension he felt in the air. He turned to Lorraine and said in mock seriousness, “Lorraine, leave that poor boy alone!” There was enough humor in his voice to leave no doubt he was joking. The class giggled; Lorraine turned pink and smiled.

The class was accustomed to Neil using humor to defuse situations. That should have been the end of it. This time, however, he had misjudged the depth of Jesse’s anger. more tomorrow


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