Why I Kept Teaching After Being Sprayed With Human Piss

Photo: Studio Peace / Shutterstock
middle school teacher
Self

The child’s face was beyond gleeful.

His grin had that manic quality, the kind of expression I recall having at that age while running through sprinklers or being chased at recess. Unbounded joy, mischief and something electric, the experience of being utterly alive and free and no one could stop me.

In the context of being a teacher in a middle school classroom, and what the boy had in his hands and subsequently sprayed in my face, my reaction to his expression held more terror than nostalgia.

Though it was smack in the middle of seventh grade English, I believe we were reading something from Sandra Cisneros, his tiny frame darted in practically shaking with glee, aimed his blue water pistol at me, and fired.

His face fell. Though he looked only thirteen, the language that spewed from his mouth afterward was not at all unusual in that Bushwick, Brooklyn school, at least not in the early two thousand’s.

He hadn’t meant to aim at me, I could see it was a huge mistake. Terror replacing joy, his eyes shot behind him. “Sorry, Miss…” he stammered. “Sorry, I…” His jaw opened again, then closed.

My class erupted in laughter, the kind I knew I’d never recover control over regardless of the thirty minutes or so remaining. The boy dashed out.

“Want me to go get him, Miss?” A boy who always carried my books for me from one class to another, taking pity on my first-year teacher status, offered. “Mr. Cruz is right down the hall,” he added. Our massive Dean of Discipline could definitely catch the attacker, but I was a little too shaken to respond right away.

My star student’s nose crinkled when he got closer, backing immediately away. “Miss, I don’t think that was water.”

I looked at my soaked button-down and instantly knew he was right. “Yeah,” I managed. “Go get Mr. Cruz.”

Then, I covered my mouth to hold back both the vomit and the undeniable scent of urine, and ran to the teacher’s lounge, hoping against hope another adult could get to my room before more disaster ensued.

Being on the “front lines”

Earlier that year, I’d been recruited by the highly selective New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF) program and, though the thought of teaching had never crossed my head as a career path, I was thrilled for the opportunity to work in a high-needs school on what I thought of as, “the front lines.”

My longer-term goal was to work in some sort of counseling capacity with victims in war-torn countries, and I thought the opportunity to “do good” in the United States first was a great way to prepare.

Though the concept behind the NYCTF at the time was a fantastic one, essentially placing high-impact career changers and top-performing recent grads in the toughest to staff schools in inner-city areas such as Bushwick, was fantastic, there were some inherent issues to the whole concept.

The biggest one was that many of us had not experienced anything like this and had not come from the areas we served.

I was prepared for the challenge or thought I was, in the sense they’d trained me to plan lessons, manage a then-pencil-and-paper grade book, use “stickers” as incentives, make phone calls home, and myriad other techniques intended to set teachers up for success.

Then-Bushwick was very different from the apparent renaissance it now experiences, and what we couldn’t be “taught” without direct experience was how to adapt to a community riddled with the kind of crime that led many of my students to be raised by grandparents, their parents either dead, incarcerated, or missing.

In other words, stickers didn’t always do the trick when it came to classroom management.

The liquid in the water pistol did, in fact, turn out the be urine.

Mr. Cruz totally saved me, immediately discovering the culprit who confessed and stammered a truly heartfelt apology. As I’d suspected, the target had been a student in my class, not me.

The whole thing had been done on a dare. That said, the administration took the incident very seriously, and I soon landed in the Dean’s office surrounded by four police officers.

“You realize, son,” said one of the officers, “that this constitutes a very serious crime. Assault with bodily fluid is a crime.”

I could see the boy didn’t fully understand what the officer was saying, but I could also see through the pools of tears that he was utterly petrified. He didn’t answer, I’m sure because he couldn’t speak.

“You hear me, boy?” The officer repeated, jaw clenched.

The boy nodded, gripping the edge of his stained white t-shirt.

My heart burst at the sight of him. He was tiny, with the kind of clothes so many of my students wore — ripped and dirty, and the smell of him filled the room. Sweat and pain and fear and adolescent hormones run amuck.

And while I certainly didn’t condone pee-fueled water fights under any circumstances, the reality of what was occurring smacked me hard across the face.

Here was a child, like any other child, who’d made a dumb mistake, one millions of other children could have made. Kids can make idiotic choices. Hell, adults can make idiotic choices. But if there’s anything all of us need to learn, know, and live by, it’s that our choices do not need to define us.

This particular boy, Hispanic just like the other 90% of the student body that wasn’t Black, and from an impoverished neighborhood to boot, already had the short end of the stick with regards to life.

The school itself could be a living, breathing example of the school to prison pipeline and this one incident could lead to a lifetime of this boy defining himself as inherently bad because of the childish choices he’d once made.

I asked to speak to the Dean in private and begged him to dismiss the police officers.

“They’re just here to scare him,” he assured me. “But you can press charges. You want to press charges?”

I wasn’t assured, and there was no way I was going to press charges.

In fact, I fought and argued with the Dean until he agreed to not suspend the boy. I explained my reasoning, and luckily for both me and the boy, the Dean understood and agreed with me. 

He was born and raised in Bushwick, and as he put it, was “one of the lucky ones.” What he meant, of course, is that he managed to continue his education through high school and beyond.

He escaped the school-to-prison pipeline.

This experience was neither the first nor last time I found myself in a challenging situation while teaching or, later, as an administrator.

There was the time, during a fire drill, the kids in front of me were messing around and one of them pushed the other, whose head smacked mine so hard it collided with the concrete wall behind me, knocking me out.

I awoke in the ER with ambulance and emergency bills so bound up in insurance and bureaucracy it took years to recover my credit.

Then there was the time, as an assistant principal, I had to suspend a teenaged boy for bringing a massive hunting knife to school, though I knew it was simply because he was an awkward kid who wanted to impress his friends. Another kid making another idiotic, childish mistake.

RELATED: The Death Of A Student And The Brutal Heartbreak Of Being A Teacher

What all of these situations have in common is that they forced me to think deeply and critically about the next generation, about our children.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Hey You! Want more of YourTango's best articles, seriously addictive horoscopes and top expert advice? Sign up to get our free daily newsletter!

Teaching and working in education has taught me the power and importance of a collective and communal focus on how to genuinely educate our youth.

This means examining my own beliefs and wants and putting those of our kids' way, way above my own. I have to get messy and uncomfortable, constantly evaluate and re-evaluate my biases and assumptions, even my very welfare.

The thing is, that kid’s future, the one who sprayed me with his own urine, was far more important than my current discomfort. His future is, was, and always will be, my job. That is no small undertaking or ask. None of us want to be sprayed with piss or any other bodily fluid.

I’m pretty sure that’s not even a generalization, and I could have reacted in anger and turned that anger into a justification that arresting him or suspending him would teach him a lesson, that he’d never do it again.

Data shows the opposite is true, though, that suspended kids commit more crimes, and schools that suspend send more kids to jail.

This reinforces the whole reason I never stopped teaching, why I will never leave education, and am so fortunate to have found a career that brings real meaning to my life.

Suspensions give educators a break, but harm kids.

Our job, my job, is to teach kids. The kids that need the most support, the most teaching, are those we struggle with the most, the ones we have to fight ten times harder for, the ones who, in turn, teach us the most.

My career makes me one of the luckiest people on the planet.

RELATED: 10 Things You Must Know Before Loving A Teacher (As Written By One)

It brings profound meaning to my life and I never stop learning. Children, kids, teenagers challenge us in ways we need to be challenged because they force us to step outside of ourselves and our own comfort and look into the future, one we will not be around for.

And it’s not just the uncomfortable challenges, there are also the beautiful things they bring, the times they reflect on how we’ve helped shape them.

Like the time a senior with special needs, including dyslexia, told me the first full novel he’d ever read was in my senior year English class.

It was The Catcher in the Rye, and I’d helped him see the similarities between himself and Holden. He carried a copy of it when he walked at graduation, and I wept. Hard. So did his parents.

He was the first in his large family to ever graduate.

Between the struggles and the beautiful, imperfectly perfect peaks, there is no better job in the world for me. I learn every day and help focus and shape futures that will outshine all of us if we work hard enough together to make it happen.

If we listen and reflect, it’s easy to see how our children are our greatest teachers, and we should be grateful for everything they are capable of teaching us about both ourselves, and humanity as a whole.

RELATED: 6 Zodiac Signs Who Make The Best Teachers

I love my job and the students I teach, and will never regret being sprayed with human piss.

Jenny-Mundy Castle is the author of Every Time I Didn't Say No, her memoir inspired by educating high-trauma youth in New York, New Mexico, and Nigeria.

This article was originally published at Medium.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.