Democratic Classroom vignette 1

By Tyler Schelpat

I’m sitting in a cramped administrative office in a metal folding chair, one of seven arranged in a circle. We are all so close our knees are touching. Across from me, slumped down in his chair, is L.

He is flanked by his mother and father. In his periphery sit an administrator and two other teachers, but he keeps his eyes trained on the floor.

“L, are you listening?” He lifts his head. His awareness joins the collective milieu. His mother is calling him back. “L, listen to them, they’re asking you a question.”

His big eyes refocus on the administrator to his left whose mouth is moving. She leans closer to him, down to his eye level, until her gaze meets his. “L, your grade in science is a B, and your close to failing your other classes. Why is that?”

L looks to me. His eyes telegraph a feeling of contrition that is sure to set in when the dust of all this settles. It’s unclear what he will feel so bad about.

One of the other teachers chimes in: “You act wild in our classes. You walk out, disrespect us, you don’t do your work, we want to know what’s so different about science class that you can seem to at least function in there?”

He looks back to me. He gathers his thoughts, and begins to speak: “Well, Mr. Schelpat gives us choice. He lets us choose how we want to learn things. If we say we want things done a different way, he listens and then tries to do those things. He gives us a lot of freedom in his class.”

The stare of the other adults is relentless. I keep my head tilted slightly down and my eyes tilted up, watching him explain.

“He really tries not to get mad at us when we make mistakes, even though we take advantage of the power sometimes.”

There’s silence. He looks back down at his sneakers.

The administrator turns to me. “Thank you, Mr. Schelpat, you can go.”

I thank the family for their time and exit quietly. Later, the administrator stops me in the hallway on my way to the copier. I ask her how the rest of the meeting went.

“I hope you realize how inappropriate that was, what happened in there.”

I shake my head, my mouth open in confusion. I had barely said a word the entire meeting.

“You made the rest of us look bad. I know you didn’t mean to, but those other teachers are embarrassed.” I wasn’t sure if she was trying to imply that they were embarrassed for me, or for themselves.

She turned and left me there, near the copier, trying to muster some sort of explanation that I knew would not make anything better.

I thought about L. He understood the power of honesty. He knew that not even his honest truth was going to make this better in the long run, for anyone involved.