He bent another rule. Something innocuous. More of a delaying tactic than anything. Standing by the pencil sharpener, taking his time as the rest of us started off for the library, reaching out and flipping through some other student’s the notebook on a nearby desk.
He mumbled something and made no motion to move. I smiled. I knew what he was doing. It was the same thing he did most days. He pushed boundaries, seeing how far he could go. I’d heard a few teachers talk about his actions with exasperation. I understood their point, if not their responses, which allegedly involved raised voices and extra homework.
After he finally acquiesced, or simply stopped caring about how sharp his pencil was, we walked down the hall, a couple dozen feet behind the rest of the class. Maybe it was because it was the last month of school. Maybe it was because it was the last class of the day. Maybe it was because I try to deal with behavior management as directly as possible.
Most likely, I was just curious. I asked him why he didn’t leave when asked. Not an accusatory why, a genuine, “explain this to me” why.
He sort of shrugged, like flicking a feather off of his shoulder, about as much movement as I could expect out of a sixth grader at 3:15, and said, “I dunno. I don’t like rules.”
“Because all of the fun stuff is against the rules.”
“All of it? Really?”
“Most of it at least. We never get to do anything fun.”
“Like sharpen our pencils?”
“No,” he paused with the exhaustion of a student that is tired of hearing his name called in admonishment.
“It’s just…Whenever there is something fun, teachers are like, ‘Don’t do that’. The stuff that is boring, is the stuff we’re supposed to do. So sometimes, I just want to not follow a rule and have fun.”
Now, I get why we have rules. They exist for numerous reasons, most of them involving keeping people safe and/or productive. Yet, to him, rules were simply keeping him from fun.
The Turning Point
“I wonder, James,” I continued, “if one of the reasons you think that breaking rules isn’t so much about what the rules are, but that you like breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules. Like, if we had a rule against reading quietly in your Language Arts class if you wouldn’t read as much as you could.”
He smiled. Subtly at first, then more, then even more, until he started laughing. Then he nodded in sheepish agreement as we walked into the library.
I’m not advocating the elimination of rules. Far from it. I wouldn’t survive a year in an anarchist classroom. I even understand that some rules are in place simply to help students appreciate the value of following rules. I needed a reminder that we are dealing with still-forming minds. Sometimes minds that think they already have all the answers. Sometimes, those kinds want to break rules just for the sake of it. Sometimes they want a reaction. Sometimes they just feel the need to break a rule.
It doesn’t make it okay and doesn’t mean you should overlook it or let it go. As the days of the school year drip away and you wonder what happened to all of the time you spent on classroom management throughout the year, remember that part of growing up in society is testing boundaries. It isn’t you. It isn’t them. It isn’t the rule itself.