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High School Lesson Plan:
Erica’s List

The chemicals in the beaker obediently turned sapphire blue, just as the happily absorbed high school science teacher had said they would. “Taa-daa,” Mr. Vitroski sang with a cheesy Broadway flourish of his arms at the end of the demonstration experiment. “That’s what’s so wonderful about science. That’s what’s so wonderful about this world and life itself. It’s all a series of predictable reactions to a stimulus.”

“Bullsh—,” coughed Erica into her hand. A few students reacted with raised eyebrows and grins. They’d heard Erica’s “coughs” before, especially in the unanimously hated Señora Riguli’s class, but usually her profanities were muffled enough that only the students understood what was said. Erica must have been slipping because Mr. V. was staring seriously at her. Either that, or Erica had meant to be heard.

“Even that was a predictable reaction to a stimulus,” said Mr. Vitroski quietly. He was staring straight at Erica. “What happens in this world isn’t predictable at all, but most of the reactions and outcomes are.”

“Like I said,” dared Erica slowly and deliberately, “that’s a pile of steaming bull…” The bell rang over her comment and 26 high school students, Erica among them, mechanically packed and stacked their books, and then shoved themselves into the overcrowded hallway.

Exactly 14 minutes later, Erica was summoned from her art class to the assistant principal’s office. She picked at the paint on her left hand as she waited in the office for Mr. Jones to open the door. She’d been here before. In fact, she was a regular since she’d come to the high school. Elementary hadn’t been that way. Erica remembered elementary school as colored maps with strange countries and oversized books full of wondrous stories. But things had changed during the middle school years and only gotten worse since high school. Erica knew she was in for a lecture, a series of questions that no one wanted to hear the answers to, and a chunk of detentions or maybe even a day out. She didn’t care. It was all the same to her. Jones didn’t scare her. The door opened and Erica saw that it was Mr. V. waiting for her, not Mr. Jones. Okay, she amended silently, two lectures instead of one. Mr. Vitroski ushered her into the office and closed the door.

Erica didn’t wait to be asked. She chose to sit in the chair closest to the wall and plopped down defiantly, taking a “so what” posture to let Mr. V. know that she wasn’t afraid. Mr. V. didn’t sit down behind the desk in Mr. Jones’ chair; instead, he sat beside Erica, leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and looked at the floor. “I want to talk about what you said in today’s class,” he said quietly. Erica didn’t answer. She figured Mr. V. would yell a while and then Mr. Jones would come in to assign the suspensions. Erica knew from experience that her own presence wasn’t really even necessary in the coming “talk.”

“In art class, yellow and blue make green,” said Mr. Vitroski. “They always do and they always will. It’s a predictable reaction.” He was quiet awhile and then continued. “In English class, a negative adverb added to a sentence reverses the verb. ‘I do see you’ becomes ‘I do not see you.’ The meaning is reversed — another predictable outcome from an action. In math class, improper fractions, when simplified, will always contain a whole number. Again, predictable. Even your social studies class has predictable outcomes and responses. If a country ignores its masses of poor and glorifies its few privileged, bet on a revolution coming right around the corner. In my class, if we remove oxygen from water, we are left with hydrogen. The world isn’t controllable, Erica, but it is pretty predictable. Apparently today in class you didn’t agree with that.” It didn’t sound like a question, but obviously Mr. V. was waiting for an answer. Let him wait, thought Erica.

“Human reactions to a stimulus can be predictable as well,” continued Mr. Vitroski even more quietly and slowly. “I said something you didn’t agree with and you let me know you were in disagreement, but you didn’t say it directly or intelligently. You were belligerent but cautious about, it and you did it in the safety of a crowd.” Mr. Vitroski looked directly at Erica, but she continued to stare stonily at the wall. “What I saw happen in those few instants in my class today, Erica, was a predictable reaction. If I work backward, I might be able to define the stimulus.” Erica didn’t show it, but she was listening. She thought, “So V. thinks he can understand my past by looking at my reactions, now? Yeah right.”

“When I see you disagree or add your opinion in a nasty way that is designed to keep you safe, I wonder why you had to learn to do that. Why can’t you just speak honestly and have a conversation about it? Why do you always attack and cover at the same time? I’m a science teacher — I look for what caused specific reactions. I can’t help but wonder about the stimulus that taught you to behave the way you do.” Erica stared ahead in hot silence, so Mr. Vitroski tried a different tack.

“Let’s try it this way, Erica,” he explained. “Do you remember when we talked about Pavlov’s dogs? Erica?”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“Can you explain it to me?”

“The dogs had a loud bell rung when they ate, so they started salivating every time they heard a bell.”

“Even if there was no food?”

“Even if there was no food,” answered Erica as expected.

“So they were reacting inappropriately but understandably. Do you get it?” asked Mr. Vitroski.

“You’re telling me I’m all screwed up, right? Like those stupid dogs?” exploded Erica, her face red and angry. “Big freaking surprise! Anyone looking at my discipline folder in this office could guess that.”

“I’m not telling you that you are screwed up, Erica,” said Mr. Vitroski quietly. “I’m telling you that you are perfect and exactly what you should be.”

“Oh, yeah, right.”

“Yes, I am right. You are exactly, predictably, almost scientifically what you should be. You are, well, perfect.”

“And you are, well, insane,” mocked Erica. She was a bit surprised to see Mr. V. smile slightly.

“Look, you have obviously been through some sort of time — some sort of trauma that I can’t possibly imagine.” Erica looked away from Mr. Vitroski’s face to the wall and crossed her arms, doing her best to appear bored. “I am not trained to handle whatever that is, and I don’t pretend to think it’s my business.”

“You’re right. It is none of your business.”

“I agree, Erica. That’s not why I called you in here. Believe me or don’t believe me,” continued Mr. Vitroski, “but that sort of experience — a hard, bad, high-stress event or series of events in a person’s life — changes the way the brain works. And its outcomes are as predictable as any of the other stimulus-reaction pairings of which I’ve spoken.

“Oh, so now I’m brain damaged?”

“I didn’t say that, Erica. I said your reactions are predictable. There are certain reactions that are the result of tough times. The fact that you react with anger and self-protecting attacks shows me you’ve had some tough times.”

“So what? So what?! Everyone has tough times.” Erica retorted. “So what if I react? Who cares?”

“I care,” said Mr. Vitroski. “I care because the reactions you use now aren’t appropriate. They may have saved you then, but they seem to be the only ones you know, and they aren’t working for you now.” Erica rolled her eyes and looked away.

“Okay, tell me, Erica, what a rabbit does when it suspects a predator is approaching.” Mr. V. asked. “C’mon, you can do this.”

“It freezes. Big deal.”

“Right, it freezes. It seems to know that the predator can’t pick it out from the background scenery, so it freezes. It becomes invisible and saves its own life. It’s a good strategy — a good response and reaction — to a predator. But what happens if it uses that response when a car is approaching?”

“Road kill,” Erica responded.

Mr. Vitroski grinned slightly again. “Exactly. The rabbit knows only one response to a stressful situation. That reaction and response saved its life many times before. But because the rabbit cannot change its pattern of behavior — because the rabbit cannot realize that this behavior pattern of his even exists and that it certainly isn’t appropriate in this approaching car situation — we now have, as you put it, road kill.”

“So now I’m a rabbit?”

“No, Erica, you are not a rabbit. But you are, in a small way, behaving like one. You have developed a pattern of response and it seems to be the only one you know. Somehow, in ways I’ll never know or understand, it saved your life before. But you aren’t in immediate danger in my classroom. You’re safe there.”

Mr. Vitroski watched Erica’s eyes begin to redden and her mouth to tighten. He looked down to give Erica her privacy, but he continued talking. “You’re safe, and yet you’re using only your old response. It’s a good response in your head, Erica. It’s completely automatic and it’s worked before. It’s the one your head knows and reaches for. You don’t even have to think about it. But in my room and apparently many other situations in your life, that response is like freezing in front of approaching headlights. It’s only getting you into trouble. The rabbit isn’t aware of itself, Erica. It can’t discern its patterns and reactions and then learn when they are necessary and when, instead, they are trouble. You can.”

“You don’t know me,” said Erica quietly. “You don’t know my story.” Her face was turned downward and Mr. Vitroski watched her try to hide behind her own hair.

“No, I don’t know you. Not completely. But I do know the reactions and responses, Erica. I do know that leading with an angry attack is a learned behavior designed to protect the person using it. It’s natural and normal to attack first as a means of survival. You are doing what makes sense to you, what has worked before. That’s logical. It is, like it or not, perfectly logical.”

“Yeah, if I’m so perfect, then what am I doing in here?”

“Humans have a lot of standard reactions and responses to bad stimuli.” Mr. V. explained. They’re predictable and they’re logical. People who have had the big, bad and scary time can shut down like a rabbit. That’s one logical response. Or they can attack like a cornered animal. That’s another logical response. The problem is that their brains learn that behavior and tend to go back to it very easily. They take what was perfect before and use it as an answer to all problems. Despite the fact that the problems are different, their answer and reaction stays the same. They go back to the exact same response even if it is completely inappropriate for the situation. You did that. And that’s why you’re here.”

Both of them sat silently. Mr. V. looked at the clock and realized Erica had now missed most of her art class. Erica seemed to read his mind. “Well,” she asked, “how many detentions do I serve for acting like a rabbit? Is that one in the student handbook with smoking and excessive tardies?” Mr. V. didn’t answer, so Erica dropped the tone and asked again. “Okay, how many days for profane language in class and insubordination?”

“I don’t know,” answered Mr. Vitroski honestly. “Do you have any idea?”

Erica smiled. “Yeah. It’s 10 now because this isn’t my first time. They run them up when you’re a regular like I am.”

“The detentions don’t seem to change much,” said Mr. Vitroski. “How about if you give me 10 responses instead?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Write a list of 10 possible normal human responses to a big, bad and ugly stressful situation,” Mr. V. explained. “The reactions have to be understandable and logical responses for the original scary situation, but they also have to end up being harmful later if they are repeated as the only available response to each stressful situation the kid encounters for the rest of his or her life.”

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