In Response To: Detention

Campus beautification should be brought back in place of our school’s current detention system.

If a student gets detention on a weekly basis, is it really serving its purpose for that student? Being the questioner that I am, I often ask myself how useful detention is, and in my opinion, it’s about as effective as wearing sunscreen in a rainstorm.

Twice a year, our staff is asked to consider, as it’s not mandatory, hosting detention. The rule is, you cannot assign detention unless you are willing to host it on two occasions annually. One would think teachers line up to offer their services, except they don’t. Each time the signup is passed around at our first staff meeting, I contemplate signing up, although I never assign detentions. The way I choose to operate, I never need to, but that is not to say that my days are without challenges. My classroom is mine to manage, and I make it my responsibility to deal with disruptive behaviors, yet I’m always reminded by one staff member that in order for anyone to have that option, we need to buy into the system. So, I buy into the collective bargaining that is site peer pressure.

Fewer people are seeing the necessity, however, and we are in a detention-host drought.  It is now second semester, and we have about eight detention days unfilled, and since we only allow students after school detention on two days a week (to accommodate late, after-school buses), that totals about four weeks worth of un-hosted detentions.

Several of my students earned a detention today, their somber faces telling tales of woe and sorry-for-myselfness.  Not interested in asking question, I refrained, but I could hazard a guess as to why those particular students would find themselves in such a predicament. There are times, I do admit, that students receive such “behavioral supports” and “opportunities to grow” because it is easier than actually managing a classroom. Teacher survival relies upon the power-play of the carbon-copy detention slip, and without it, some colleagues face mutinous situations.

Problematically, nobody acquiesced to host those in need of “opportunities for growth” today. Generous me. E-mailing the administrative assistant, I volunteered to host today’s detainees.

Approaching the line of students awaiting to be escorted to the hour of doom, their sullen faces and detention slips in hand, my teacher gaze of disappointment and “you could do better” pierces their stubborn, adolescent veils. If I am going to tack an additional hour onto my day, allow me to revel in the authoritative mode. According to the chicken scratch annotations on the slips, 10 of the twelve lucky, soon-to-be-reformed citizens earned their trip to post-school attitude adjustments by way of a single teacher,  all for the same vague reason: not following directions.

Color me shocked. Adolescents not following directions in a middle school classroom? That seems more like a normal day than one that warrants assigning 10 detentions.

“Why do you think you were assigned detention?” I ask.

One of the students responds, “Because we are generally loud or off task.”

“And why is that” I probed, authority and concerns peppering my voice. “You know the difference between good school behavior and bad. Why would you do something in that class he wouldn’t do it mine?”

“Because we’re bored,” another blurts out. Unsympathetic to that behavior, I can at least understand it. Both the behavioral supports that need to be implemented in this class, but also support for the teacher who clearly feels as though he has no other option but to assign detentions to students, need to be reevaluated.

After the hour I spent with the detainees, I felt like I had been in detention, too.

It has been a very long time since I felt like that.

My sophomore year of high school marks the only time I earned detention in my entire school career. Chemistry could have been one of my favorite classes, except it was taught by an eccentric and close-to-retirement teacher, Mrs. Lundie, whose penchant for a good ol’ story ran deeper than her love of the chemistry she taught. Possessing the strangest ability for getting us to remember things, her mnemonic devices were particularly peculiar. My favorite story she ever told us starred her sister called “Effie.”

Balanced between bunsen burners and beakers, the day’s experiment had to wait. Effie’s history beckoned. We were in for a long one.

Mrs. Lundie, from a small town in Missouri, in full possession of a sweet southern accent, proceeded to tangentially recount a 30-minute story about her tomboy sister. It turns out, Effie really enjoyed lifting weights. She was the strongest member of the family, so strong in fact she seemed like the kind of brute broad who could till the plow with bare hands. I have to admit, we were all enthralled by Effie, imagining her bulging muscles hunkering inside overalls, skin suntanned from her hours toiling beneath the harvest sun. Her aptness for manual labor rivaling only that of her family’s oxen, cooperatively reaping the fall harvest, Effie and beasts. We were all enthralled, hanging on each word, dripping with molasses and suspense, tipping our work stools towards the storyteller. The pastoral scene was resplendent with stuffs by which legends are made.

Mrs. Lundie’s big reveal came not in mid-America themes, nor did she wrap us in the warm blanket of a Aesop-like morale. Nope. Her sister’s name, in the end, may not have been Effie. Hell, I don’t even know if she had a sister at all. She wasn’t just duping us, it was for the sake of learning. Effie, the letters F and E in sequence, represent the atomic symbol for the element of iron.

Effie pumped iron. 

Turns out, this woman with a supposed rich, family history, was a spinner of periodic lies, a teller of tales taller than an ox car. Mnemonic devices, I warned were her specialty, yet and I remain unamused, robbed of a half-hour by her story. My last name, Ferro, literally means iron. It begins with the letters F and E.  

Teachers are just damn lunatics.

For the remainder of the year, my lab partner Rachel and I, made terrible jokes emulating Mrs. Lundie’s “Effie” model. “Did you know that salt is the nasty appetizer? N and A. Na. Sodium. Salt. Or we’d laugh aloud as one of use would shout, “Eh you! I found gold!!’ A and U. Au. Gold. Get it? 

But it wasn’t all fun and games in chemistry class. We did more than memorize elements on the periodic table, balance chemical equations, or, for extra credit, design a physical beanbag mole to represent the chemistry concept of a “mole.”  (Sidenote: it was 2000, and I named mine “Mollenium.” You’re welcome.) From time to time, people got in trouble.

Mrs. Lundie was the only teacher to ever assigned me detention. As she strolled down the rows of high tables, our lab stations, where our chemistry learning occurred, she approached the back of the room where I sat next to Rachel, beside the cabinets with ancient, yellowing textbooks, and jarred, unidentified substances. Glancing at me with lips pursed, she asked, “Are you chewing gum in my classroom?” It was pretty obvious; I was chewing gum in her classroom.

“Spit that out!” she commanded, in her kind of official-but-I-am-sweet-as-sweet-tea way.  Rising to find the nearest trash can, Mrs. Lundie started her way back to the front of the room, passing my desk again. “Are you still chewing?” inquiring with incredulity, like more than ten seconds elapsed. The answer again, was an obvious yes. “I’m gonna give you detention for your defiance! she exclaimed.

“But I barely had time to spit it out,” I argued, but it was all in vain.

That afternoon, I met on the blazing blacktop with our school security detail, another member of the detention chain gang, plastic bag and gloves in hand. I received an hour of work detail, beautifying the campus by picking up all of my schoolmates litter, scraping desiccated morsels, likely, of Winterfresh gum like that I failed to spit out.

Considered cruel and unusual punishment in 2019, my district abolished the practice of campus beautification as a means of behavioral modification. No longer do you see hordes of students, lined up like complicit little ducklings pecking at scraps of paper and detritus. Instead, they are forced to spend a quiet hour pondering the errors of their ways – in my classroom because no one else volunteered.

While pondering their misdeeds, the 14-year-old me, is still upset about Effie, and even more upset that I didn’t have the opportunity to spit my gum out.

I take an Altoid out of my drawer and compromise, the memory’s minty freshness on the tip of my tongue.

2 thoughts on “In Response To: Detention

  1. I’ve never understood detention either. Or any of the punishments used by school. There’s no research to support their effectiveness, and ample research (and common sense!) to show that they don’t work. I am actually very sympathetic to that poor student being so bored. I do a fair bit of observing in schools, and by the end of the day, I’m usually ready to poke my eyeballs out with boredom. Day after day after day of that and I’d probably be doing stuff to get detention too!

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  2. I don;t think I ever had detention. We don;t have a school-wide detention. It is dealt with by each team. I am lucky to teach in a gifted program at an affluent school, where most kids are compliant. We give lunch detention for offenses like not finishing homework, not bringing a planner, leaving materials behind. Lunch detention isn’t that bad. My room is the lunch detention room for our team of four. Kids eat their lunch and read a book, or do their missing homework – no electronic devices allowed. At the beginning of the year they worry their parents will find out or that it will go on their permanent record. I am a very lucky teacher.

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