Michael Cartolano is a LifeChanger of the Year nominee in the running for the Capstone Award which honors retiring K-12 educators. This year Michael, who was an art teacher and department chair, retired from H. Frank Carey High School in Franklin Square, NY. We are honored to share some of his words of wisdom as he reflects on an important lesson he’s learned as an educator.
Sometimes the best way to motivate a kid is to stick your tongue out at them.
Yeah, you heard that right. Look them square in the eye and use your tongue to blow the tiniest of raspberries in their general direction. Now that may seem like odd advice from an educator in my position, so humbled by his nomination for the Lifechanger Capstone Award for Retiring Educators. But if you hear me out, you may begin to understand what I mean.
Penelope (AKA Penny) and I were not exactly what you might call “friends”. As part of my teaching duties, rather than a nice cushy hall duty, a quiet study hall or even a 43 minute daily stroll around the cafeteria as the kids ate their lunch, I was blessed with what was called in my school the dreaded “discipline duty.” This consisted of hunting down “low level” offenders who cut class or engaged in mostly harmless mischief, and administering detention. The big stuff was reserved for the dean or the assistant principals. I was strictly low level, but it was honest work. That being said, I was assigned to hunt Penny down pretty much on a daily basis, and when she saw me coming, detention slips in hand, she’d roll her eyes, click her tongue and mutter “What now?” Sometimes she’d mutter other words as well.
So as fortune would have it, Penny was struggling a bit in more than one of her classes and a midyear schedule change removed her from some poor teacher’s room whom she was driving crazy and she landed squarely in mine. It was a perfect little class that I had finessed into a well-functioning machine of productivity and pleasantness. Penny walked in the first day, eyes glaring and growled, “Where do I sit?” I directed her to the one remaining seat in the back of the room. She stood a full head taller than all of the other kids so it seemed a good fit. She promptly put her head down on the desk, effectively burying her head in the sand. “Penny, pick your head up please.” I said, atonally. She let out a huge sigh, sat up, folded her arms and glared at me. It was then that I stared back at her, as the rest of the class was already engaged, heads down, coloring away, and screwed my face into a grimace. Then stuck my tongue out at her. Shocked, she began to smolder and stuck hers back out at me. Incensed, I then let out the smallest of raspberry sounds. To which she responded with a longer, sloppier one of her own. It was then that both of us burst out laughing. The class looked up, not having any idea what was going on and looked at us both as if we were crazy, and perhaps we were. I asked Penny to step out into the hallway, while I kept an eye on the kids. I was taught that early on in my career. I then turned towards her and said, “look, let’s just start off fresh…you okay with that?” She thought for a second and then said, “Yeah, if I can go to the bathroom.”
“Okay,” I laughed, “but just today,” I added.
That was the beginning of a new relationship with one of the most memorable kids of my career. You see Penny was what was coldly referred to in the 90’s as a “crack baby”. She was born addicted to crack cocaine, the result of an addicted mother who left the family shorty after giving birth to Penny’s little brother. Penny’s dad did the best he could; a huge, blue collar guy with an ever-present Mets cap, and a T-shirt that said Mambo #5. But despite his best efforts, his two kids steadily rotated in and out of disciplinary suspension. Penny had also additionally developed the bad habit of smoking, and this proved to be her main downfall. In fact, she had been suspended for much of the previous year for supposedly “lighting a fire” in the girls’ room with her butane lighter, an action that served to make her nothing more than notorious in the eyes of the entire school.
Fast forward a few months of relatively peaceful coexistence and the opportunity for a school trip to a local art museum arose for my class. As I passed out permission slips and talked about the exhibit the kids would be viewing, I slapped one on Penny’s desk.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“It’s a permission slip,” I said, atonally.
“You’re letting me come?”
“Shouldn’t I?” I said, again completely devoid of expression.
“Do you know who I am? I’ve never been allowed to go on a field trip my entire life. I always have to stay behind and sit in the library all day. You know I set the school on fire, right?”
This called for another hallway talk as the interest the conversation was generating in the class would soon become counterproductive.
“Well, did you Penny?” I asked, again with one eye on the class as I was taught.
“Aw hell no,” she said correcting herself to “heck” without blinking. I hid my cigarettes and lighter up in the ceiling tile so if I was asked to empty my pockets by anyone I’d be clean. When Robocop walked in (the name the students affectionately called the female security monitor), I was standing on the radiator lighting my cigarette. She thought I was lighting the ceiling. Who lights a ceiling tile? Aren’t they asbestos even?”
Um….they probably were.
“So, what do you think Penny, do you want to go on the trip?”
“Well then, you’re going on the trip!”
Cue the smiles all around.
Only she wasn’t going on the trip. The morning before the trip, Penny was suspended for smoking in school. Due to repeated offenses, she once again would not be coming back that year. It wasn’t long before Penny dropped out of school entirely, and a year later I had heard that she was pregnant. But, I also heard something that made me smile. The pregnancy had caused Penny to finally give up smoking.
I wish I had a better end to the story that included Penny defying all odds and becoming a doctor or something, but to be honest I don’t know what happened. So often in our profession, the very kids who occupy our thoughts and our hearts so much just kind of vanish. So, what’s the moral here, if there is one? Well I guess it’s just to say that even the most unreachable kid is reachable, if you can figure out the particular “key” for their personal “lock.” I always give teachers who I mentor this advice: .If you can’t go through the front door to reach a kid, go around to the side or even to the back, but don’t give up. Don’t be afraid to be a little unconventional or even silly to get them to just crack a smile. One smile can melt down years-worth of stone walls that have been put up as if they were cubes of sugar. Once you get the smile other things start to fall into place. Maybe not immediately, but they will.
Wherever you are, Penny…I hope you’re in a good place.
Text from LifeChanger of the Year nominee
Learn more about Mike Cartolano on his LifeChanger of the Year profile.