Photography by Jeremy Schulz
Something happened to a good friend of mine during the last week of school. He is an amazing teacher working in the ghetto, and this story is sadly one that isn’t too uncommon. We’ll call my friend Mr. Roberts.
Mr. Roberts was in the middle of a lesson when another teacher down the hall brought over one of her students to take a makeup test. Mr. Roberts introduces himself to the kid, gives him a seat in the back, and asks him to take off his hat. Mr. Roberts then returns to the front of the room to continue his lesson.
The new kid is obviously upset about something; Mr. Roberts could see that right away. The kid ignores the test in front of him, and leaves his hat on. Stopping his lesson, Mr. Roberts asks the kid once again to take his hat off. Mr. Roberts isn’t mad, and says something like, “Hey man, I know some teachers have different rules, but there’s no hats in my class. Is that cool man? Thanks.”
The kid doesn’t move, just sits there mugging Mr. Roberts, who thinks he is going to have to ask again when finally the kid slowly takes off his hat. He continues to ignore his test, but Mr. Roberts chooses not to address that now. He is busy, and can’t stop his regular class too long or he’ll get behind.
Remember, Mr. Roberts is already dealing with 35 other students in his room, most of who are failing, and are looking at him in a not so dissimilar way as the kid in the back. There is only one kid in the classroom who has an A (Mr. Roberts told me this himself).
When he does get a moment, he checks on the boy and sees the kid fumbling around with something under the desk. As most high school teachers know, this usually means he is texting. Mr. Roberts has had it, the kid has been blatantly disrespectful, isn’t doing the work he came in with, and is not listening to Mr. Roberts at all. The kid came in with a chip on his shoulder, and it’s painfully obvious that sending him here to do a makeup test wasn’t the right choice. He is willing to do the other teacher a favor, but if a kid is going to act like this, he’s got to go… Mr. Roberts walks to the back of the room and says, “Okay young man, put your cell phone away, I’ve had just…” He stops mid sentence because he notices that what is in the kid’s hand is not a phone.
The kid stands up and screams, “This ain’t a fucking cell phone. FUCK!”
Mr. Roberts can see that. What’s in the boy’s hand is a knife. Evidently he had been sharpening his pencil under the table with the knife. The kid continues to yell, “Fuck you bitch, this is a knife!” The blade is about 2 to 3 inches long.
This situation could go anywhere. The room is silent, filled with tension. The other students are silent, some from being scared, others simply entertained. Mr. Roberts’ next actions will either set this kid off or defuse the situation. What does Mr. Roberts do?
This is where it gets good.
Mr. Roberts starts laughing – like – really laughing. After a few gasps he catches his breath long enough to blurt out, “That? That’s not a knife!” It’s straight out of Crocodile Dundee! He continues laughing, gestures toward the door and says, “Get out of here man, hurry up! Leave!” He then walks back behind his desk, turning his back on the boy, still giggling to himself.
He then resumes his lesson without hardly a pause. Talk about one hell of a transition. He asks the kids to turn to a certain page in their books and starts jabbering about what the text is showing them. It’s important to note Mr. Roberts isn’t dense or stupid, his brain is doing backflips and his adrenaline seems to have replaced all the blood in his body. He is acutely aware of the the boy across the room, the classroom full of students, and the thousand other things his senses are telling him. Even so, he continues to teach, pausing one more time to tell the kid, “I’m serious man, get out of here with that. Go back to class.”
The boy stands there, dumbstruck, fuming, then begins to walk toward the front of the class. Mr. Roberts continues jabbering about God knows what, he just hopes it sounds like something academic. There are maybe two students in the room who have actually opened their books, the others are watching the kid walk up the aisle. He gets to the front row, and Mr. Roberts is picturing every kind of scenario imaginable. How can he get the knife away from the kid? How can he get him away from the other students and out of the classroom? And, most obviously, is this kid coming to stab me?
The kid gets to the front of the room, knife still in hand, meets Mr. Roberts’ eyes, turns and heads out the door. Mr. Roberts goes to the door, locks it, and immediately calls security. The kid is suspended for a few days.
So class, what have we learned today?
Well, first I have to give props to Mr. Roberts for flawlessly defusing the situation and getting the kid out of the room and away from the other students. Sure, it is an interesting way to approach the situation, but man, I can’t imagine doing it any better. You can criticize it all you want, but they don’t teach you about this stuff in our credential programs. You have a half second, if that, to make a decision that might lead to someone getting seriously hurt, if not killed. That’s thinking on your feet. It might seem, I don’t know, irresponsible to laugh at someone with a knife, but I honestly have to say that there are almost no exact answers at this point, so if it worked out well, it must have been right. Either way, lets analyze the situation from Mr. Roberts’ perspective.
The first thing he does is defuse the seriousness of the situation. He makes light of the knife, the kid’s anger, and the danger in the room. The kid was looking for a fight, looking for someone to confront him, and he had a pretty good idea about what he was going to do to whoever that was. Not only did Mr. Roberts NOT confront him, he backed away, turned around, and put even more distance as he could between himself and the student.
A lot of this has to do with Mr. Roberts’ teaching style. He is a laugher. He cracks jokes all day long. He is the wittiest person in the room every minute of the day, and if you want to step up he will rip you to shreds – and he’ll do it with a smile. He also formerly served in our armed forces, and therefore wasn’t as worried about his own personal safety as you or I might have been, which I’m sure made things easier. I’m sure that confidence was apparent, and that alone might have been enough to deflate the kid’s anger. Of course he was worried about the safety of the other students in the room, including the student with the knife, but not being scared out of his gourd certainly helped him.
So what do we take away from this?
If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, remember what Mr. Roberts did. You are probably not a former Marine, and might understandably be a bit more freaked out if a kid brandishes a weapon in your classroom. But just remember some key points:
-Tell them to leave right away, your first job is to get the student to leave the room. I’ll say it again, GET HIM OUT OF THE ROOM. There are no negotiations, there aren’t any pleas, you get him out of there. Tell them to leave, and if the student isn’t doing anything crazy, try to resume your lesson. If he isn’t getting the attention he wants, maybe he will just leave. One can only hope.
-Call security? I don’t know, maybe that will force him to act. By resuming his lesson, Mr. Roberts continues to defuse the situation. Kids are kids, and sometimes they don’t know how serious something is until an adult makes it serious. If it doesn’t seem important to the adult in the room, the student loses their thunder, and their sense of purpose. But if you can, yeah, call security, but I would save that as a last resort. If you can get him out quickly without extended discussion and confrontation, do it.
-But if you are confronted directly, try to relieve the seriousness of the situation. Maybe laughing doesn’t work for you, but at least try to make light of it. Keep your voice low, quietly ask them to please leave. You can even go to the door and open it for them. Like I said, there aren’t any sure-fire answers here. But you don’t want to make a huge deal and start freaking out. Keep your composure.
-Don’t show fear. If you show you are scared, that is when they will take advantage, and in this situation, that could mean anything. Act natural, in fact, act more than natural. Act like you don’t care. Act like you don’t even see the weapon. Fear on your face spells disaster here.
-Put as much distance as you can between yourself and the student. They are looking for a confrontation, make it difficult. It’s hard to confront someone who isn’t anywhere near you.
-Get them out of the room, at all costs. Mr. Roberts got lucky. The kid listened to him when he told him to leave. Maybe next time he won’t be so fortunate. But you need to instruct them to leave right away, you need to get them away from yourself and the other students in your room.
In this scenario, it doesn’t seem like the kid was out to get anyone too much. We can definitely say that now, after we know he left the room harmlessly. But this kid brought a blade to school, and remember, he wasn’t just sharpening his pencil so he could get to work. He knew exactly what he was doing. He brought a knife to school and took it out and started using it in a classroom. He knows he isn’t supposed to be doing that, and he sure knows standing up and screaming f-bombs with a knife isn’t cool with anyone.
Like I said, Mr. Roberts is a heck of a teacher, and his handling of this situation was natural and effective because he wasn’t surprised or freaked out by what occurred. His response was also directly linked to his teaching style. You have to expect something like this to happen at some point in your career if you teach in a low-income public school, so you might want to start preparing yourself now. I’ve had eerily similar situations happen to me a few times, and that doesn’t include the actual gang-fights I break up just outside my door during passing period. I’m not trying to scare anyone, but it can’t hurt to imagine a few of these scenarios and brainstorm some possible responses.
Also, there are no pointers that are going to work for sure. I’m not trying to say any of this will work, but by analyzing it I think we can take away some valuable things. If you’re confronted with a student who really intends to use that thing, you’re going to be in a lot more trouble than Mr. Roberts. Ask them to leave, try defusing the situation somehow, put distance, keep your composure, and try and call security. I don’t really know, but I do know you need to consider the possibility it might happen.
You’ll do a lot better in this kind of situation if you are expecting it than if it surprises you out of the blue. So think about it, and get ready. What would you do if a student pulled out a knife?
And rest assured knowing that if they do, the news won’t report it, no one will care, and the kid will get just what they deserve – a two day suspension.