“One student,” I remember one of my parents saying and the other nodding along. “That’s all it takes to ruin an entire class. One bad apple.”
Of course, the bad apples don’t know that they’re bad apples. They don’t mean to be bad. They just want something—they would use the word “need”—and value that desire so much they can hear nothing else.
My parents’ stories from the middle school orchestra classroom are rarely about “bad apples.” Most are about children who, though they may look a lot like adults already, want and need things so intensely they can’t wait.
One time my mother was instructing her students on concert etiquette, what to wear and what to bring, when and where. A student raised her hand.
“A squirrel came into my room one time. The window was open and it just came right in! And of course we had to catch it, so my mom—”
“Did—did you have a question about the concert?”
She did not have a question about the concert. She had thoughts and feelings about the squirrel that had been in her room. She was twelve, and she raised her hand, and from that point on the entire class was derailed and my family could laugh itself sick at my mother’s bewilderment in that moment.
If only it was all about squirrel stories. More often it’s a student who makes it seem “uncool” to practice before a concert. Or who alternately interrupts and ignores his peers. Teaching college, I had similar experiences with bad apples: one student with a nasty attitude twists my words, making me teach my class with “safer” (re: boring) examples; one student’s determination to be condescending silences my most thoughtful students.
One student. Each has as much right to his opinions—loud and abrasive, or snarky and cruel—as those with socially helpful opinions. The classroom is like broader society in that way: everyone is free to be there. And every person impacts her environment.
Unfortunately, while one “bad” student—disruptive, selfish, rude—could derail an entire semester for an entire class, the opposite is not true. “Good” students—kind, insightful, interested—rarely made an equivalent impact for good. It’s a barren truth: the loudest voices are heard. The cruelest insults stick. That which is provocative gets attention.
Right now it’s the people in pain that we listen to. The ones with anger in their hearts, bitterness fueling their brains. The ones who started out defensive. We listen to them because they’re hurting and they’re hurting us, and pain is louder than anything else when you’re tired. So loud, in fact, that we are tempted to wait them out, to live peacefully in places far away. Take desks on the other side of the room, turn in our assignments, and wait for the bell to ring. Wait for the semester to end and then move on.
It’s a survival strategy, not a winning one. A strategy that buys into the power of the loud and ignores just how weak they are when the more reasonable rise up.
I’ve seen the winning strategy, and it is banal. We must privilege selflessness and kindness and inclusiveness—in ourselves first and then in others. Submit your desire for attention to the scrutiny of how your actions affect the community. Wait to tell your squirrel stories until it is the right time for a squirrel story. Create a culture that loves teamwork. Have mercy towards the needs of others. Mourn rudeness. Promote quiet acts of bravery.