How a Student Helped Me Face Myself

Posted by Brian Gibbs on November 14, 2014

Facing History and Ourselves has given me much: a collective of thoughtful, like-minded educators; a deep and sophisticated pedagogy; and perhaps, most importantly, a lens through which I can see and examine myself. Though I would have labeled myself a Facing History educator since 1995, it wasn’t until 2004 that I actually faced myself fully and not because I chose to but because one student gave me no opportunity of escape.


He was 5’1” if he leaned forward and rolled up onto the balls of his feet, stood straight and lifted his chin, which he almost always did. Angel wore a uniform of sorts: Black and white high tops, long white socks, extra long black shorts, a blindingly white T-shirt or Clippers Jersey His hair was always heavily gelled and was probably a bit shaggy but I could never tell because a white “beanie” hid it, pulled low, just touching his gunmetal eyeglasses. Wisps of an imagined goatee shaded his lip and chin, encouraged to grow by the constant rubbing of the bottom half of his face.

BrianAngel transferred from another school halfway through first semester and took the only empty seat in my 11th grade American History course. The rest of the students in my class knew what to do and did it. I had taught all of these students except Angel the previous year for World History. They completed assignments, engaged in discussion, asked good questions, joked around, and participated.

Angel seemed to be going through his playbook of how to get kicked out of class. He was adept at sliding through school doing little and contributing less. The homework was the first sign. No attempt was made on his part to even convince me that he had begun it, had a family issue that kept him from it, or that he hadn’t understood it. He just walked in defiantly having done none of it. He came to class late, did not engage in teamwork or class discussions, and the list went on.

One Day

One day he coasted in a minute or two late. I said, just to him, “You can’t be late,” with a stern look. He replied with a respectful, “I know,” and took his seat. I turned to the rest of the class and said with voice raised, “Seminar in less than 24 hours! Final analysis today! Get to your character teams!” Students knew where to go—they had been working in character teams for part of each day for the last week or so, attempting to fully understand the historical character they had been assigned. It was a unit looking specifically at women’s rights activists from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Gloria Steinem. We were examining the freedoms the activists were pursuing and the organizing tactics they employed. Angel had been assigned Ida B. Wells-Barnett who he seemed to admire. He was impressed by her ability to become a school teacher at age 14, having to be dragged from a train by eight men for sitting in the “whites only” section, and becoming a fierce advocate for the end of lynching. “Wow, hardcore…”, he had whispered as he had read about her.

As the rest of the students moved to their team’s assigned places, Angel stayed still. I helped students get in groups, then checked in to see what help they needed. Angel had stood up but hadn’t moved. I assumed a position just in front of Angel and though speaking to the entire class, looked directly at him. “Let’s go, time’s a wasting! Move! Move! Move!” He began to move and I followed about a foot behind. He moved with me for a few feet then changed his mind. In the middle of the classroom he dug his heels in and spun around (him facing most of the rest of the class, me with my back to them). He squared his shoulders, had his legs evenly spread apart, stared at me for a long second as if an old west gunfighter steadying his nerve. Then, raising his right hand and pointing squarely at my chest, the sound seeming to bang its way out from deep in his belly, he said, “F*** you!”

His words sucked all the sound out of the room.

Just to make sure I’d heard him and knew he meant me, he repeated it seconds later into the absolute stillness of the classroom. I looked at him for a second, his eyes and face, his entire lean body so filled with passion and emotion that I had to turn to keep from laughing. In the three weeks I’d known him it was the most focused, determined and passionate I’d seen him. I turned my face and righted myself not wanting to disrespect him. I was excited, finally some engagement. I looked at the rest of the class who had shocked looks on their face and said, “Get back to work!” and they did. I stayed where I was but encouraged a group to rethink one of the questions they were going to ask Alice Paul. I was trying to buy time, trying to figure out how to re-insert Angel back into the class.

He made the first move. From my stance in the center of the room with my back to him, I heard the door open and close. One of my students, Joanna, whispered with bulging eyes, “He left.” I crept to the door, opened it slowly, peered outside and didn’t see him. He had vanished.

  • Read the rest of the story.
  • Have you had a moment (whether inside or outside the classroom) that forced you to face yourself? Share your moment below.

Feeling particularly appreciative of the challenges teachers face? CLICK HERE to read about the 20 finalists in Facing History’s 2014 Teacher Appreciation Contest and vote for the educator who most inspires you.

Topics: Urban Education, A View from the Classroom

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