There is a quote on my classroom wall from one of my former students. Days before he graduated, fully pleased, he popped his head in my room and asked, “Hey, Mrs. G, remember in ninth grade when you told us who wasn’t going to make it, and they didn’t?” Chuckling, he sauntered off.
That reads harsh, doesn’t it? Teachers aren’t supposed to tell kids, “You are going to end up a dropout. You are going to end up in prison. You are going to end up at the alternative school.” Teachers are supposed to inspire, shove children up the mountain, past their drug-abusing mothers, absent fathers, and abject poverty. Teachers are expected to make silk purses out of sows’ ears–every day.
In my classroom, generally, I don’t do that. I point out the obvious: you, dear child, are currently a sow’s ear. And then I say: wouldn’t you rather be a silk purse? I see so much silk in you.
These children, these hulking man-boys and affection-starved girls, want someone to see the silk. They want it so badly.
Teaching, in the first days of the year, is like a protracted meet-the-in-laws Sunday brunch. You don’t really know them, but you hope you’ll like each other because life is going to be hard if you don’t. You have no knowledge of their backgrounds because veteran teachers don’t warn each other–after all, perhaps you are the one teacher who can reach Little Johnny, and, if you’re not, well, you don’t want to know how bad things might become.
I am in that stage where, after fifteen days with them, I am starting to know my kids.
I am seeing the silk.
There is so much silk this year.
We are drawing lines with one another, having touchstone conversations, revisiting what we are doing well and what is unacceptable. Learning each other.
Today, I explained that they needed to remember that their behavior impacts one another. And more importantly, their behavior impacts others’ education.
I looked at my solid, quiet child, the child whose future is so bright. Nineteen years ago, he would not have caught my eye. I would not have known, really, that he was even there–the “designated hitters” in the classroom, the loud, knowledgeable kids, would have masked him. But now, I know he is one of the most important kids in the room, unknowingly carrying the spark of a different future.
I told my kids, “Look, H—– has an education to get. He is very smart, and he’s got important things to do. I can’t let you affect that.”
Then, I looked at H—–. I said, “Has anybody ever told you that before?”
He said no.
He has sat in classrooms for eleven years. 1,995 days. And he has never been told he is smart.
(I suppose a “God help us” would be dramatic, but I really feel this merits one: God, help us.)
In 1990, when I first began teaching, I was the only tenth grade ELA teacher in a small school in an impoverished town. I taught every sophomore, whether we gelled or not. There was no teacher down the hall to swap with. And in one class, on my first day, a helpful child raised his hand and announced, “It’s like they put all the rejects and bad kids in one room.” It was misery.
(At least five of the boys from that classroom have been–or are now–in jail; one outlier became a preacher.)
One sunny afternoon, my dynamo of a college professor, Dr. Patsy Griffin, came to the high school. As the students milled around outdoors, she looked at one boy, who was certainly neither a scholar nor an acolyte, and said, “Come here.”
I was uneasy. She was touching his elbow. She said to him, “Let me see your eyes.”
She commanded me to look into his eyes. I did.
“Look,” she crowed, “He has such smart eyes.”
Oh, how he beamed.
She murmured to him about his eyes. Asked about his grades. Said she was surprised they were so low when he was obviously so smart, what with those intelligent eyes.
She left quickly, but that sixteen-year-old boy was never the same. Three minutes changed him. He’d heard he was smart. Perhaps he, too, had waited 1,900+ days for a “professional” to notice.
In my classroom, I do not spread adjectives and affirmations like feel-good fairy dust. My classroom is not a place where the students are called Mr. and Miss and referred to as scholars. It’s not a warm and fuzzy place at all.
But I tell my kids things like, “You are going to be a Coca-Cola Scholar, and I’m going to hand you that check on stage.” “You are going to go to Agnes Scott. I can see you at an all girls school. You would thrive there.””I think you would be a good hospital administrator. You are good at bossing people around.”
When I say things like that, hands shoot up around the room–“What do you see ME as?” “What do you think I’ll do?” They are desperate to hear of respectable futures, of jobs, marriages and kids. Houses and pets.
There are other children, too. Kids whom I quietly call up to my desk, where I open my second drawer and shove aside some boxes before pulling out a letter. It’s a three page letter from an imprisoned former student who was like a son to me.
I tell them, “I think you might need to read this. I don’t show this to everyone. But this boy, well–like you–he was like a son to me. He even went on vacations with us. Shared a hotel room. Carried my baby’s diaper bag through Busch Gardens. He was like my son.”
They quietly read the long letter. In it, T— laments not moving with us to North Georgia. He wonders what his life would have been like if he had listened. Made better decisions. He talks about his son he won’t see.
He writes and writes and writes. After all, he has twenty years.
They read every word. I show them his photo. I tuck the letter away, telling them I can write to them in prison or in college. That I will write to them either way.
Today, in a show of authority–because we are still in that early jockeying–I made the kids be fairly silent. Some students were forced to do a dreaded study guide, while others did group projects, and a handful read independently.
I’d chosen a five part LA Times feature for my smart boy to read on his phone. He sat in my chair in the front of the room, reading every word aloud to himself in a low murmur. He read until the bell.
He turned to me as he left, said, “I will finish this tonight.” Strode out with purpose.
Day 1,995: The day he finally became what he’s been all along: smart.
God, help us.