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Class Notes
Learning how to manage anger
(Published February 23, 2004)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

February is one of the busiest times for teachers. End of the first semester. Grades are due, schedules change, students settle into new routines. Almost every kid is taking a new elective, although how "elective" it is varies.

"Hey Maria (not her real name)," a kid teased. "How you like Anger Management?"

Maria turned, eyes narrowing.

"I hate it." She paused. "It makes me ... (another pause) ... angry." The kids are often unintentionally funny this way.

Anger Management is a special class taught by a life skills teacher at Bell, one of the support staff in the offices of counseling and social work. Students who have been referred to the principal one too many times rocket to the top of the list for this class. Sometimes, also, itís kids who arenít doing things that get them suspended, but who seem to have a hard time coping with their emotions. And who doesnít? Especially in D.C., the town of the hair-trigger car horn.

How much of this is learned? It seems to me that growing up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a car horn was reserved for near-death warnings only Ė but maybe thatís selective memory. Still, itís not just the microseconds required when waiting behind a car stopped at a green light. People in D.C. get all fired up about whether theyíre allowed to use the express checkout lane at the supermarket. These countless angry urban scenes end with incidents like James Richardson getting shot at Ballou.

In my classroom, Iíve had a lot of kids who are partially-to-completely crazy. Every year, I have one or two young men whose only response to conflict is escalation. While the preceding sentence seems unremarkable, imagine screaming profanities and derogatory terms all over the place 30 seconds after somebody bumped them on their way to sharpen a pencil. And then five minutes later: "Mr. Wennersten, Iím cool. Whatís the problem? Why am I the one getting put out? She bumped me!"

My personal favorite is the blameless victim: "I wasnít doiní nothiní. I was just minding my business, but if heís going to jone (make fun) on me, I got to talk back. He canít talk out the mouth to me. If he says nothiní to me, I wonít say nothiní to him, but if he talks out the mouth to me, I got to get even."

Why? What is so important about the last word that itís worth getting suspended for? And since both sides have the same attitude, what happens is an arms race to swear words, pushing and shoving.

"Well nothiní would have happened if he hadnít started it."

This is exactly how people get killed.

The fact is, it takes two to have an argument. Either one can choose to walk away at any point. We know that the reason the kids donít is all about "face" and "respect." And kids learn as much or more about this kind of behavior as they do about any subject theyíre supposed to be studying in school. Iíve watched parents tell kids that if they donít "take care of their business, [theyíre] just asking to be bullied."

Iíd like to think that adults have a bit better perspective, but I know thatís false. The other day a friend of mine was driving me downtown to MCI Center. She suggested that it would be just as fast for me to take the Metro as for her to drive, and it would spare her the roundtrip. I replied that since I was already running late Iíd rather go by car instead of having to wait for the train. Fortunately, we didnít end up shouting at each other, but we both ended up getting angry about something so trivial that in writing about it, Iíve got nothing but contempt for my own anger. Who really cares? Itís five minutes either way.

The whole time we were driving, I was looking for a way to disarm, to end the argument in a calm way, to de-escalate. This is something that I have to do in the classroom, thankfully not daily, but often. I couldnít find a way, which is too bad, since most of us already know many good ways to de-escalate. I needed a reminder. Hereís five:

1. Pause. Often just taking a deep breath is enough to let you realize that youíre being a chicken-headed fool.

2. Apologize (even if you feel youíre in the right). "Iím sorry that weíre upset about this."

3. See the humor. People getting worked up are inherently funny. After all, this is why we watched the Three Stooges. Oh, poor Maria and her unhappy new elective.

4. Change your posture. Realizing that your body is tense is often all you need to do to relax.

5. Walk away.

I didnít make these up. There is an extensive literature on anger management. For a nutshell, try the American Psychological Associationís Web site at http://www.apa.org/pubinfo/anger.html.

Actually, the amount of information out there makes me angry. How have we let this become such a big problem Ė such a universally recognized condition Ė that not only are there books, consultants and psychiatrists but also a whole genre of movies, from "Analyze This" to the eponymous "Anger Management"?

Iím upset because I know that anger is not universal:

The end of the semester is also time for report cards. Parents have the option of coming in during parent-teacher conference day and picking them up from the school, or, if not picked up, they are mailed to each studentís home address.

A young man who I highly regard, for his hunger for knowledge and his immense good humor, asked me if he could pick up his own report card since there was no adult in his family who could come to school. I asked him if the reason was that his parents are not in the United States (many students at Bell are recent immigrants). He explained that both his parents had died when he was very young, and prior to coming to this country, he had spent six years in refugee camps in the Sudan. In fact, as I later learned from another teacher, the refugee camps were a relative bright spot; before he made it to the camps he had spent several years roaming the countryside with a group of other kids, the oldest probably being around 14. People would sometimes feed them or help them out, but no one would take them in, and mostly they had to fend for themselves.

If anger is caused by stress, by hardship, by loss or by exposure to violence, this young man had every right to be angry. Instead, respect in his vocabulary is being doubly quick to write down everything the teacher puts on the board. It must be important Ė it was written by a teacher!

Unfortunately, I had to turn him away. Only his legal guardian can pick up the report card. He accepted the news without complaint, and the next day at school he gave me his usual big smile.

We should all do so well.

***

Wennersten is a third year mathematics teacher at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2004, The Common Denominator