One year a class wandered into an end-of-the-year discussion about negative experiences students had had in school. No names were mentioned, no teachers or students identified, and no recent experiences highlighted. But students began to describe experiences that for whatever reason that had left a mark. One student named Sam talked about an experience in a grade-school cafeteria that took place when he had thrown away food. There must have evidently been a policy–spoken or unspoken–against wasting food, and the teacher on duty made Sam, in the middle of a crowded cafeteria, fish that food out of the garbage.
I forget what Sam had to do with the food at that point, but his harbored resentment was obvious in our classroom, and as other students told of similar experiences, my teaching partner and I decided to have a “healing day,” which sounds cheesy and no doubt was, but most of the students got into it, particularly Sam. In his case, we put a garbage pail in the middle of the room, and he walked over to it with a container of food that was almost full and, with the shouted-out encouragement of his classmates, threw the food away; but he didn’t just drop the food into the trash, he hurled it downward, seemingly ending ten years of embarrassment because as the class applauded and stomped its feet, Sam raised his hands over his head in triumph.
The point–assuming there is one–isn’t that grade-school students should be encouraged to throw food away, but, rather, the point is that it is unbelievably possible for a teacher to unthinkingly do harm: so much so that I think that–similar to the taking of an oath by doctors–should be let into a classroom without declaring, “First, do no harm.”