Olivia Newport roadblock photoWhat would you do?

I frequently spend about four hours in a local coffee shop on Saturday mornings writing or revising. In four hours a lot of people come and go and most of them are just background buzz.

But a couple of weeks ago, a group of four friends came in and set up at the table next to me. Within forty seconds it was clear they were middle school math teachers and they had gathered to grade papers.

If only they had just graded papers.

First, it seemed to me, they spent a significant amount of time making comments about individual students. At a volume that was hard to shut out.

And it pained me.

I understand professional blowing off steam. We think it will make us feel better, and when we are with people who know our world, it’s easy to let go. Get it out of our system.

But these were real children they were talking about in a public place, and what stabbed me was the reality that one month into a new school year, these seasoned teachers had already decided who was “never going to get it.”

Well, the students definitely won’t “get it” under those circumstances.

And when they said, “Nobody in the whole class got anything right on this page,” I wanted to say, “And whose responsibility is that?”

I found myself looking around for cameras. Was this one of those “What Would You Do?” set-ups on the NBC show where John Quinones creates outrageous circumstances to see what people will do? Will they try to keep the drunk pregnant woman from drinking more? Will they intervene when a nanny is verbally abusing a child in a restaurant? Will they stop teachers from demeaning students in a coffee shop?

I had protracted mental dialogues with myself about what I would say. But it was ungracious. All of it. And I couldn’t get past my visceral reaction in order to temper my words and spirit.

Finally I left without saying anything. But it haunted me all afternoon.

I have a cadre of friends who are long-time teachers. My daughter is a young teacher starting out. I am well aware that teaching is a profession that requires heart and soul and comes with a boatload of aggravation.

But I still felt grieved and wanted to reach out to every one of those kids and say, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important,” to quote Kathryn Stockett.

Help me out here. What would you do? Am I over-reacting? Have you ever spoken into a situation in public that made you uncomfortable? Under what circumstances do you think it’s appropriate?