I entered my first semester of teaching confident in my ability and smug about my qualifications. After four years of study in biblical languages and English literature, I figured I knew my material. But I failed to take one thing into consideration: the students.

Seventh graders, it turns out, are not impressed with academic records. They do not fall into hushed silence or stand at attention when you enter the room. The ill-fitting wardrobe and questionable grooming habits of the newly minted college graduate do not inspire awe in middle schoolers. Sure, most of my students were respectful. But they were not impressed.

One student, whom I'll call Stewart, was particularly unimpressed. He was the only son of a single mom and attended our small, rural Christian academy because his grandmother believed it would do him good. I often wondered whether she ever considered how much good it would do the rest of us. He didn't listen. He could not sit still. He had the "inside voice" of a lawn tractor. And in his mind, he was always a victim.

If this conversation never took place, it might as well have:

"Stewart," I say as if I'm doing him a great honor. "How did you answer number four?"

"Mr. O'Brien," he says as if he were speaking to me for the first time in ages, "guess what I did last night."

"No, Stewart. I want you to tell me how you answered number four."

"Okay." He pauses. "I went shopping with my grandmother."

"Stewart," I interrupt. I'm in control.

"And she bought me this jacket to wear when I'm riding my dirt bike."

"Stewart." (Less calmly.)

"And then we went out for pizza."

"Stewart!" I pound my desk. The other students look down at their desks, embarrassed.

"Geez." He slumps in his chair. "Why are you always so mad at me?"

"Stewart, ...

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July 2009

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