It started with a photo envelope from Walgreens, thrust abashedly into my hands. The envelope was so well-worn it was fuzzy. I looked at this student of mine, a questioning expression on my face. He wouldn’t look me in the eye, likely because I would see the vulnerability there. I began to open the envelope —- in the hopes that he would give me the intro to what I was going to see.
Inside were about three pictures of Elijah’s Kindergarten graduation. Skinny little kid. Same cute face. A yellow cap and gown, standing there with his classmates. To me, eight years ago. To him, a lifetime ago. As I oooohed and ahhhed over the cuteness factor, he did the typical middle school hardly-able-to-contain-himself-with-my-outpouring-of-appreciation thing, while acting like he was oblivious to my opinion one way or the other for this once Kindergarten kid, now a good four inches taller than I.
I have the privilege of getting a glimpse into the lives of the kids I teach every day. Mine aren’t the kids who come to me well-scrubbed and eyes lit up with eagerness. What I see is nonsense, sadness, loss, brokenness. One, losing a year of his life locked up in the Juvenile Detention Center. One, who at the beginning of the year, cowered under the staircase during lunch, afraid to sit with the other kids for fear of being made fun of. Eight months later, he is swinging a trash bag full of recyclable metal cans that faculty, and my neighbors, bring to him. Happy.
Another boy, hardly the height of a third grader, who is in eighth grade, has found more than his fair share of mischief during his three years in middle school. Friday he came up to me and told me that he’s training to be a deacon at his church “The Church of Jesus Christ of Second Chances”. He is part of the “Men of Standard” group. The bike club. If another kid mouths off, he is the first to say, “Hey, dude. Stop disrespecting Mrs. Dickinson.” He’s half-launched.
I had a kid three years ago. A girl. Oozing attitude. Every single thing I did, she rolled her eyes at me. That would include clearing my throat, handing her a pencil, telling the kids to line up for lunch. We danced that dance for the better part of two years. And the last year of her stint in middle school, we developed a nice relationship. The eye-rolls faded and then went the way of all good eye rolls — to extinction. I used to joke with her and ask her to do her eye roll, and when she would, I would say, “That is pathetic. Your eye roll isn’t as good as it used to be, because you haven’t been practicing it!”
Then there’s the football/basketball star. Nice kid. But manages to find his share of trouble. Comes in my room every single day for a hug. Sidles up to me sideways and throws his arm over my shoulder. Polite. Handsome. As the kids say, he’s got it all going on. During his last year, he got sucker punched by another student. This kid was calling his mama everything that you can imagine, then got up in his face and said, “Ahhh…..too big a p**** to fight?” I made eye contact for a split second with the kid being assaulted and gently shook my head. With all I had, I wanted him to not take the challenge. And he didn’t. Miraculous. Middle school boys don’t take well to not fighting back. He did. And it was probably my proudest moment as a teacher.
I love what I do. This small, inner city school has the same students as the private school in the tonier sections of town. They all put their pants on the same way, have to be reminded to tie their shoelaces. They will help shape the classroom they learn in, the household they live in, who they marry, who they sire, what they do for a living, how they contribute or don’t to the community. I know my kids, with all their socioeconomic deficits, can overcome their raising. It’s what keeps me going back every day.