Learning to Love Your Enemy — When Your Enemy is a 5th Grader

The most frightening moment in my teaching career occurred when a 13-year-old 5th grader threw his desk at me.

Normally my classroom was as far from chaotic as one could be, as I held classroom management at the highest level of importance, as essential as teaching math. Flying furniture threatened to overthrow order.
A week prior to the desk launch, my team teachers and I received notice of a transfer student, let’s call him John, who would be joining our school after spring break. His records indicated that he had been transferred to multiple schools in several districts over the years. He also had been retained, received behavior plans, and seemed to be highly at-risk. Many of our students in this Title-One school were at-risk, but John had some specific challenges with which we didn’t have much experience. I also understand how difficult it can be to transfer to a new school, especially so late in the year, so I was determined to help John feel welcome and safe in our classroom.

The first few days were challenging, a power struggle. My students knew me to be fair, trustworthy, and consistent, but John was testing the waters. We had a classroom based on basic principles of hard work, respect, rewards/consequences, and having fun while learning. I taught math, but we did so through singing, dancing, sign language, storytelling, games, sports, construction, pictures, group projects, and experiments----strategies John wasn’t used to. We had a classroom economy, complete with jobs and wages, plus a store. I didn’t simply teach math; I tried to build hope, create leaders, and make a difference in the lives of these children who were in low-income, struggling home lives and who might otherwise have little hope for their futures. John resisted.

This was a challenging school year already, as there was pressure from the district to bring test scores up. I was also 7 months pregnant. John wasn’t seeming to thrive in our school, often refusing to speak or complete his work. I was worried about his behavior, but also his emotional well-being, and I was tired.

John was constantly on my mind. My fellow teachers and I tried what felt like everything to help John feel safe and integrate successfully to our team. We gave him personal attention, often working one-on-one with in a quiet, safe space. It had only been a few weeks since John joined our school, and already we started to see positive changes. Our hopes were high!

Then, something changed. John regressed and again refused to speak or work. He began to show anger toward other students and teachers. He made outbursts in class and sought to disrupt other students at any cost. No discipline in John’s behavior plan was working, and we were starting to become frustrated at our lack of ability to help this student.

By the end of his third week, John’s anger had escalated. Perhaps something at home had set him off; an event from another classroom could have sparked a fire. Ten minutes into my class, after I asked a question and gave some warm up problems, I began to walk back by John’s desk to check his understanding. I’m not sure if John viewed me as a threat of some kind, but without warning, he stood up, yelling, and picked up his desk, high over his head, before hurling it in my direction. Thankfully, the desk didn’t make contact with me or any other student, but the entire classroom was shocked and panicked, to say the least.

This outburst was beyond my training. In John’s behavior plan, there was mention of the use of restraints, but I was not in a position to do so and called for help. It was determined that John would attend in-school-suspension for remainder of that day and the following week.

My heart ached for John. Part of me felt like I had failed him, obviously not helping him feel safe and unified with our class. My team had been trying everything, and just when John seemed to be making positive steps forward, all our progress was destroyed. I felt frustrated, lost, scared, and hopeless, so I did one of the only things I could do—I prayed about it. In the past, I had received specific answers to prayers related to my teaching, as I truly saw my profession as a calling to serve my students. This night, I didn’t receive detailed instructions or plans on moving forward with John, but an exact answer came to mind:

Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you,
Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.
And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak, forbid not to take thy coat also.
And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.
But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.
(Luke 6:27-29, 31, 35)

I didn’t see John as an enemy, but knew what I must do.

This all came down to LOVE.

And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another. (2 John 1:5)

For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. (1 John 3:11, 23)

But ye will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness; ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another. (Mosiah 4:15)

I had to love John before I could hope to teach him math. Even when he cursed me, tried to smite me with a desk, or seemed to hate me and everything about my classroom, I needed to love him. It was crucial to show John that he was loved and important and could be forgiven for any wrong doing. Before I could ever teach him to solve equations, I needed to teach by example how to love and serve others.

After John’s week of ISS, I welcomed him back to class with open arms. I spoke privately with him before school, explaining how much I missed him and how glad I was that he was back. I didn’t mention the desk-throwing, but John actually apologized about it! I had also spoken with the rest of the class about how I was willing to forgive John and start fresh, and I hoped they would, too.

At times, it was difficult to continue pouring out charity to someone who almost refused to receive it. I felt as if I failed countless times at my goal. However, I kept trying.

Painfully----slowly, there began to be changes. To most people, these would probably seem trivial or insignificant, but his teachers could tell. One day, John smiled and said, “thank you.” Another, he apologized and quickly retrieved a pencil he threw across the room, without being asked. He began to turn in homework and more frequently chose to work in a group setting.

By the end of the year, John had turned his grades around enough to pass 5th grade, AND he was asking for high fives or handshakes, with the other students, as he left my classroom. I wanted to erase John’s “permanent folder” and allow him to forget the labels that must have followed him, defined him for years.

Sadly, John moved again, and I wasn’t able to follow-up on his progress going into 6th grade. I can only hope that the love that changed his 5th grade life and the grace that Christ taught me to pour down on John continued. As someone who has needed charity and forgiveness over and over again, I hoped John had learned how to continue to receive it.

My small part to play in John’s life was over, but I prayed that his next teachers would love him, even if classroom furniture ever went flying again.

Melodee Cooper is a Texan by birth, an Aggie by choice, the wife of a fellow Aggie because “he loves her more,” and a mother of three boys by a combination of time, modern science, and divine intervention. She has taught both 5th and 6th grade math and science, and is now able to be a stay-at-home mom, an amateur decorator, a crafter, a blogger, and a holiday enthusiast. She is battling Stage 4 cancer while remaining optimistic and grateful for the blessings in her life.


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