Luis was a particularly brilliant boy in my seventh grade English class in South Los Angeles. But like particularly brilliant kids can sometimes be, Luis initially decided that on all accounts he knew better than I did and that his teacher was the enemy.
He fought me often and openly, but one thing I absolutely knew that Luis did not was that he was fighting himself far more than he was fighting me. See, Luis desperately wanted to be right—and he often was, and insightfully so—but he thought the only way he could truly be right was if he proved his teacher wrong. He petulantly questioned and countered my every decision, idea, or answer.
Of course, I stood up to Luis’ antics and outbursts, which I saw as thinly veiled attempts to antagonize and show me up. With supreme confidence and utter calm, I nipped in the bud the instances I discerned as merely contention for contention’s sake. Other times, I simply ignored his futile attempts to undermine my classroom culture of willingness, wisdom, wonder, and worth.
Luis just could not get it through his hard head that my great pleasure was always to give him all the glory, especially if he could politely explain why his answer was better than my own interpretation. He saw his classmates (many of whom were nowhere near as astute as he was) routinely earn praise, not only for their cooperation and courtesy but for their intelligence and effort. So why Luis chose to deny himself these same pleasures was beyond me.
Still, I allowed him to make his own choices and to stew in his own juices. As Luis pouted, I could see he hated me and that in his own mind he was certain I felt the same about him.
The Waiting Game
Luis was good at building walls. He was too wrapped up in misguided resentment to allow himself to care about anything concerning my class.
For my part, I simply waited. I neither fawned all over him nor rubbed things in.
Yet I never gave up on him, even after he had long given up on me. The door was always open; he just had to walk through it himself like a gentleman. I continued to be for Luis the same firm, fair, fascinating facilitator I always am for every student.
With time and a great deal of patience on my part, Luis eventually came around. Toward the end of the first semester, he had finally decided that it was far better to earn my admiration than my curt rebuke or cold disregard. We butted heads so many times that he eventually learned this was a battle he was never going to win with his contrary attitude.
More to the point, Luis ultimately realized he was never going to win if he kept denying himself the delights of my heartfelt congratulation, the excitement of my engaging curriculum, and the rewards of rigorous academic success. Luis had been the oddball, not his teacher. Oh, he had made multiple attempts to get the other students to join in his cynicism of me, but his negativity was no match for the positivity the others were already reaping while in my class.
Thankfully, Luis began respectfully raising his hand to earnestly ask me some profoundly relevant question or to add his keen point of view to the discussion at hand. In the end, he cut his losses and joined us as a pleasant, productive participant of our class community.
A Shared Epiphany
One day when we were well into reading The Outsiders, Luis called me over to his desk and asked me a question I could see deeply perplexed him.
“Mr. Ward, I don’t get it. Soda and the other greasers keep telling Ponyboy that his brother Darry loves him, but he can’t see it for himself. No matter what they say, Pony is convinced that Darry doesn’t want him around and hates him.”
I was just about to give Luis some pat answer about Ponyboy’s character but found myself saying this instead: “Well, Luis, sometimes we can’t see what is right in front of us because we are too caught up in our own ideas and emotions.
“Remember at the beginning of the year when you thought I was a jerk and you just assumed I didn’t care about you at all? None of that was ever true; but no matter how much I told you I was on your side or the other kids said I was cool, you wouldn’t believe it until you were ready. You drove me crazy for a while there, dude. But it was worth the wait, don’t you agree?”
Luis simply grinned one of his rare grins.
Persistence, Patience, and a Sound Game Plan Pay Off
So, I assure you, when it comes to nurturing children, it is always worth the wait. And fortitude, persistence, and patience do pay off—but only when a teacher also steadily offers every student the things they need most.
In the end, what I learned from Luis—and every single kid I have ever taught—was that the joys of mutual respect and familiar routines, supportive relationships and sincere recognition, profound relevance and inspiring recreation, as well as reassuring readiness and progressive refinement, deeply resonate with all children. Ultimately, I wore down Luis’ resistance by making the entirety of his classroom experience irresistible.
In actuality, it was never me who was doing the waiting; it was Luis. He was waiting to see which one of us would win. Little did Luis know, he was really waiting for me to win him over. With my dedication to a consistent classroom balance of leadership, love, laughter, and learning, I did win him over. And as a result, we both won.
I would love to hear your successes, struggles, and suggestions for the ways you have handled challenging students. What transformations have you helped to manifest in your most difficult students? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.
This article originally appeared on the International Literacy Association website.