A flimsy, plastic, purple tablecloth was the thin line standing between me and rationality in my classroom yesterday. Sadly, the tablecloth won. It began the week before when I went to some trouble to create a little student interest in literature circle book choices. I wrapped books in brown paper and placed them on top of the aforementioned tablecloth spaced around our conferencing table like place settings. Students read descriptions I had written on each book then ranked them in terms of their interest level. I called it “blind dating with books” hoping this would make it fun for the kids. The students seemed to respond well to it and I was certain when all was said and done I would be able to provide each of them with one of their top three book choices. When I was straightening the books up for another group, I noticed there was a very deliberate series of gouge marks in the tablecloth. A small thing. Or, more accurately, several small things. But these small things were enough for me to feel completely and utterly overwhelmed with grief about our classroom community.
The destruction of a cheap, plastic tablecloth had a huge effect on me in that moment. It made me feel that all of the work we had done to build a safe community was worthless. No one was spit upon, insulted, or physically harmed, but I had to take a step back and reconsider what I had seen as our progress. It has been a rocky year in terms of social-emotional learning, but I felt we had come so far from the earlier days when some students were writing on the walls with permanent marker, hiding trash and nasty notes for me to find in the classroom, and putting one another down on a regular basis.
I did not react well. I lectured the whole group, knowing full well it was most likely only one or two students who ruined the table cloth. I dredged up a litany of discouraging things from the past months. I didn’t yell, but I dropped the guilt card into the mix which shamed me, so I forced myself to be honest. I very sincerely and directly told the students that my feelings had been hurt by this act. I laid it all out there and told the kids that I had only wanted to make things more fun for them and felt really badly about having my display ruined. Then I told them to take out their books and read for the rest of the period because I didn’t want to have to talk to anyone for awhile.
In hindsight, I’m sure there are lots of things I could have done to prevent this from happening. I could have told the students to steer clear of the conferencing table while the books were there, I could have gathered all of the materials up after each class so that the tablecloth would not be tempting to someone in need of an outlet for their negative emotions, or I could have used a fabric tablecloth which might have showed more clearly how much thought I had put into this activity. The students are ten and eleven years old and several of them really need a lot of guidance to stay socially positive. They are wonderful young people, and I enjoy their energy, curiosity, and creativity. Knowing that this encounter probably made a strong impression on many of them makes me feel like a bit of failure. I know I have let them down. There is important work to do over the next few weeks so that we can all “finish strong.” I will figure it out because I would prefer that my emotional reaction to a plastic tablecloth not define our time together.