In front of me sat fifteen teens, ranging from fourteen to nineteen years of age.  These young people had been placed in a course titled “Survival English.”  Some were experiencing the course for the first time, a few for the second, and far too many for the fourth or fifth year.  80% of the participants were male and handicapped by trying to learn a new language during that consuming stage of life known as adolescence.  All of the students suffer from a past school experience marked by low expectations for academic success.  The three females in the class spend most class periods trying to be invisible.  

“Yo, Rafe, why do some people call other people ‘Kike’?”  I’d already fallen for a different pejorative during the previous class period and after a twenty minute lecture about demeaning labels throughout history, and why we do it, I noticed that just one person was listening – an adult instructional assistant.  The kids were smugly smiling that teenager smile that means,  I got her off on a tangent for twenty minutes!  So, I didn’t bite this time, except to say, “I wish we didn’t do that.”   I re-directed the group back to the task at hand, solving analogies.

It was my fourth day in the classroom with this group.  I retired from full-time teaching last spring for several reasons, the most important an elderly husband who needs more of my time.  Economically, retiring at 60 has a down side.  I began teaching in my mid-thirties, so my monthly pension puts me just a bowl of ramen above the poverty level.  So, I leaped at the chance to substitute for a colleague on maternity leave, landing me back in the classroom at the beginning of the school year.

Back to those teenagers in front of me.

When a youngster has been disrespected by low expectations for academic performance and behavior for over a third of her/his life, how does a teacher break through that?  How do I get them to stand up and shout, “I deserve the best education you can give me, like this video: Don’t limit me!“?  What they are used to saying – and believing – is, “I cannot do that.  Don’t ask me to do that.”  When I asked the special education department for advice, those adults mouthed, “They cannot do . . . “  Most of the kids have grown to believe they can’t learn to read, write or solve problems well enough.

I made an appointment with the new principal.   During my meeting with this well-meaning man, three things became clear:  (1); my 27 years of teaching experience is  now discounted because, (2), I am a – knowing eyeroll here – substitute teacher; and (3), I’d better look elsewhere for assistance.

Where to turn?  


On Thursday, I unpacked the zojirushi, washed the tetsubin and cups, brought some 
Hattialli  and filtered water from home.  I  picked up fresh fruit from the market.  I placed the desks in a semi-circle and served tea to fifteen teens.  “I don’t like tea,” Octavio said pointedly.

“What kind of tea bags you got?”  Jacob peered over my shoulder, “hey, no tea bags!”

Soon, only the sound of ceramic cups clinking on formica tables could be heard.  For a few minutes, silence was golden.  A peaceful mood pervaded the room.  Three minutes of calm, maybe four, until Refugio asked,“Have you ever had Mexican tea?” 

“Yes, I have and I like it,” I said, too quickly.  “But it is actually a tisane, Refugio.  It has chamomile and lemon grass in it, but no tea.  It is very refreshing.”

“Why do they call it tea?”  These rascals are experts on inducing the twenty-minute tangent!  Too bad it isn’t a life-skill after high school.

Most of the students enjoyed the tea.   A few wouldn’t even taste, of course.   All said they would like to try a different kind next time – not because the Hattialli wasn’t good – they noticed the huge variety of colors, types, and names in my tea stash.  “Are they really, like, that different?”   Tangent alert!

Each student put his cup gently into a dishpan.  The tone shifted to slightly less adversarial for the rest of the period.  On Monday, the first student to arrive asked, “Are we gonna have tea again?”

I’m far too cynical to believe that a single cup of tea will work miracles with this group. Maybe after three or four Tea Thursdays, they will capture a bit of self-respect, which is the first step toward respecting others.  It’s worth a try, right?