A Tribute to MJ

by Amy Issadore Bloom

We’ve been having lots of Michael Jackson dance parties lately. Justin seems equally obsessed with him and Raffi, go figure.

I realized I never posted this story from the VEA.

Moonwalking with Peter

Peter got up in the middle of Writing Workshop to show us his Michael Jackson impression—complete with the crotch-grabbing. All in all, it wasn’t that bad. You could tell he practiced it a lot. But it was highly inappropriate in our seventh grade literature class and, from my point of view, had no real connection to the lesson.

It was likely a combination of things that set Peter off. His need for attention and lack of impulse control in a class with mostly boys (in all their immature and defiant glory), last period of the day, was almost asking for trouble. This was also my largest class and I wasn’t used to managing so many kids on my own. I’d only worked with small groups, or co-taught. The transition from elementary school to middle school was a huge adjustment for the students too. They had longer classes, and no recess, on top of a more demanding workload and all the social and emotional stuff. Still, it seemed as if all the “worst” boys were just dumped into this period. The type of kids that cause other teachers to make that face and say “Oh, you have so and so…”

Peter was bursting with personality, and likable, but he made teaching impossible at times. Even fun activities that incorporated movement and music didn’t work. Our timed independent writing sessions were nearly always interrupted by Peter, and then a domino effect of other boys misbehaving. When he was absent, the other boys were much better.

There were only a few girls in the class. One was bookish and always on task, rolling her eyes at Peter and the other boys acting out, giving me sympathetic glances as I tried desperately to teach. The other girls were silly and flirty and created unneeded distractions. Getting up to “get a pencil” would be a whole event of hair-flipping, skirt-adjusting and chatting with Peter, who nearly always managed to engage them in conversation on the short walk back to their table.

If he weren’t so influential with the other students, it might have been easier. At times it was as if he had more control over the class than I did—and it drove me crazy. I tried so hard to help him. I made an individual behavior and reward plan, gave him a fidget to hold, let him stand up when he needed to. But he just took advantage, and pushed and pushed until I was that “Don’t Do This” section of the classroom management books: a caricature of a teacher yelling, with smoke coming out of her ears.

Sometimes Peter just got himself so worked up, he didn’t seem in control of his body. Other days, it was his mouth that got him into trouble. During a lesson on brainstorming topics, he wrote (and shared with his group) a list that was so vulgar he ended up with an in-school suspension.

His guidance counselor was jovial, and looked like he could have played pro football, just the type of male role model the kids at that school needed. On top of the suspension, he made Peter call his mother and read her the list.

We decided to switch Peter’s schedule, and moved him from that last period “problem” class to first period. It was mostly girls and a few studious boys. The change was almost instantaneous—he was like a different person. Who knows whether it was the attention he was getting from the guidance counselor, the dynamic of the class, or the time of day. That last period was still my most challenging and exhausting, but much more teachable.

Peter still lacked that filter at times, like when he called across the room, “Hey Ms. Bloom, are you pregnant?” I was, but had not yet told the students. I’m still not sure how he knew. I suspect he overheard some teachers talking.

I wanted to be mad at him, but the class was so excited. Plus I was planning on sharing the news soon, anyway. We spent a good chunk of time predicting whose birthday would be closest to the delivery date, and sharing various “it totally works” ways to predict whether it was boy or girl (something about hiding a fork and spoon, and another about dangling a necklace over my belly.) There were also many name suggestions—none of which we considered.

The irony is not lost on me that Peter won the closest birthday contest. My son is currently obsessed with Michael Jackson (the songs, not the dancing), and he too struggles with impulse control, though mostly when cookies or elevator buttons are concerned.

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