On the first day of 7th grade, I had a run-in with my new math teacher. She didn't like my shoes.
More to the point, she didn't like the fact that I was wearing shoelace-less Keds.
I hadn't even made it past the threshold of the classroom when Mrs. B. barked at me that my shoes were unsafe and that I needed to get laces for them.
She had never met me and didn't know my name. Instead of looking at my face as I entered her classroom for the first time, she was looking at my footwear. She disapproved and made it known.
Welcome to middle school!
That night I went home, found some spare laces, and threaded them through my shoes' eyelets.
The following day, Mrs. B. stopped me at the classroom door to admonish me for wearing a backpack. "No backpacks in the classroom!"
Navigating the hallways in middle school wasn't easy. With only 4 minutes "passing time" between periods, there wasn't enough time to go to your locker, especially if your classes were far apart. That year, before math class, I had band, on the other side of the building. I had to carry my drumsticks with me. I needed something to carry them in, didn't I? I thought a backpack was a good solution.
Mrs. B. thought otherwise.
Two days of middle school down, two criticisms from this cranky old lady who I immediately took a disliking to. What was her problem?
Day three, I braced myself as I approached the classroom door. Shoelaces intact. Backpack stowed safely in my locker. Wondering what she could possibly find wrong with me today. But on the third day, my teacher said nothing critical. Nor on the fourth day. And so it continued, and I began to learn some math.
Months went by, and I grew to like Mrs B. She taught math in interesting ways, and I remember enjoying the class.
Spring came, and with it came band concert season. One day, the band did a concert off-campus, and afterward, we stopped at the local pizza-party place, Pietro's. Besides serving pizza, the restaurant had arcade games and gumball and toy machines. That day, one of the machines contained plastic necklaces. I saw some other kids buying them. I had a few quarters with me, so I bought a couple necklaces, put them on, and wore them back to school, feeling cool.
We got back to school just in time for math class. I entered the classroom and sat down. Mrs. B. began teaching. Then her eyes fell on my necklaces.
And she proceeded to freak out.
She said they were inappropriate. Not at all okay for school. She made me take them off and give them to her. She put them in her desk.
I did not understand. I felt embarrassed and confused. It made no sense. What had I done wrong? What was I missing?
I had spent good money (well, quarters) on those necklaces, only to have them confiscated within two hours of purchasing them.
After class, I timidly approached Mrs. B. and asked if I could possibly have the necklaces back. Shaking, I promised never to wear them in class again, if only I could have them back. I remember she gave me the evil eye, as if she wasn't sure she should return such heinous objects, or if by doing so, she would be committing some kind of crime against humanity.
But she did hand them over.
And I took them home.
And I still did not understand. I mean, how could anyone possibly object to innocent little things like baby pacifiers?
If you peruse the internet, you'll learn that pacifier necklaces were fad within the rave culture in the early 90s. From there, they just became a normal fad, like slap bracelets, or Pogs. Totally harmless as an accessory, unless, like Mrs. B., you attached meaning to them.
You're wearing a pacifier necklace. People who do drugs wear those. By wearing them, you are advocating for, and/or taking drugs, clearly.
Yes, because that person, that 12-year-old, was all about teh drugz.
As a matter of fact, about the only thing I knew about drugs was what they taught us in health class.
To me, pacifiers were just things babies used. Babies were cute, and therefore pacifiers were cute. Other kids wore the necklaces, so they were cool. The end. Nothing else to see here.
It would be oddly satisfying to say that Mrs. B.'s harsh criticisms led me to actually pursue a life of drugs, backpack-wearing, and shoelace-rejecting. But all she really did was leave me with some pretty sour memories of seventh grade math class.
All that said, that incident with Mrs. B. is one of the reasons why I'm careful, as a teacher, what I do and don't tell kids.
Sometimes it's necessary to speak up. If a student is being racist, sexist, or outright vulgar in a way that could hurt others, then yes, I'll let them know. I'll kindly remind them of the respectful way to act or speak. And when they make good choices, I will give them positive feedback.
But if I spot a first-grader wearing a shirt that says "I'm so hot," I'm not going to stop them and explain to them that they shouldn't wear that. Sure, I might think it's ridiculous, but that's not my job. It should be the parents' job. And what do I know, maybe they don't own very many clothes, and that was handed down. Plus, if the kid has no idea what it means, I can't just say "don't wear that," because they'll wonder why. And the answer is either simple or complicated, depending on your viewpoint.
Mrs. B. never explained to me why I shouldn't wear a pacifier necklace. She simply freaked out, made me feel bad, and left me with a lot of questions.
I'm far from being a perfect teacher, but I do hope I'm not anyone's "Mrs. B."