It’s always nice to be able to commisserate with another educator who understands the frustrations and sadness that come along when working with kids who, as I say, are dealing with issues that I never confronted at their ages, issues with which kids should never deal. This week I met Shelly Terrell, and we discovered we have had very similar experiences with those kinds of situations.
As Shelly told me some of her most shocking and sad stories, I did my best to focus. A former student’s face kept coming up in my mind. We talked about my concern that once my kids leave me, they’ll default to the lowest common denominator. She disagreed. I had to talk about this student who I kept thinking about. So I told her the story of Carlos.
Carlos came to me unannounced one morning in my second month of teaching, his mother wearing a nervous smile. He seemed petrified. I didn’t hide my shock that he was there. I’m sure I did an awful job welcoming him.
Carlos’ transition to his new school and my classroom was not smooth. He was easily distracted, aloof, and lacking the foundations to read within two years of grade level or to recall basic addition facts. But he had endearing traits. He was generally respectful, charming, funny, and even called me ‘Sir’!
One day, Carlos was in flagrant violation of, at the time, one of my strictest rules. He was playing with the lead in his mechanical pencil. Older and wiser me wonders now whether he derived some kind of relaxing joy from this, but young, impetuous me knew only this: no student of mine will be playing with mechanical pencils in my room! I confiscated the pencils and threw them in my desk drawer. I made sure to glare at Carlos and say something pompous to drive home the point that I was the boss, applesauce, and mechanical pencils were not for entertainment.
It was after this incident that I enlisted the guidance counselor to see if she could help me understand the nuances that made Carlos operate the way he did. She met with him that week and later returned to me with his heartbreaking history. As it turns out, the poor young man, at the age of 10, was effectively on the run from an addicted father. He, his mother, and his baby brother had moved around the city several times, trying to elude someone who was exerting an unsafe influence on them. My school was his third in the last calendar year. His mother worked nights, making any form of consistency at home virtually impossible.
From this point, my attitude toward Carlos changed. I softened up on him a little bit, but I remained firm. What I mean is that I looked at him in a different light, but I still tried to get him shipshape for school. Shyly, he would periodically ask me when he could have the pencils back, usually while looking at the floor and kicking his feet in embarrassment. I wasn’t ready to give in, but I told him to keep improving (which he was) in his behavior and he’d get them. His work picked up, too. He was turning the corner.
One day, I don’t remember what he did, but it was something that really stuck out to me. Maybe he raised his hand several times to join in the conversation, something he had never done. I decided Carlos could finally have his pencils back.
I called Carlos over to my desk that afternoon and said I noticed he’s been doing better in school, working hard, participating, that I saw a big change. I took the pencils out of my desk, put them in his hand (he shyly thanked me), and put my hand on his left shoulder.
“Carlos,” I said, looking into his eyes, “I’m really proud of you.”
I could see his eyes filling with water. He stammered – and beamed. “Oh, well, wow, you are?”
“Of course I am. You’re a great kid.”
“Oh, thank you so much, sir.”
He practically skipped away. It was obvious to me no one had ever said anything like that to him. Maybe it was all he needed to hear to give him the confidence to succeed. This boy was no longer small and insecure. He was walking on air. Those may have been the most meaningful words he’d ever been spoken.
As I told Shelly this story, I had to stop because I was getting emotional. That was the first time in my career – and possibly the only time – that a student of mine was so positively impacted by something I said. For a while, I hadn’t remembered it, but clearly, I’ve never forgotten it.
Like I said earlier, I worried that my fifth graders back then would leave me, head off to middle school, fall in with the wrong crowd, not remember anything they accomplished with me or any of the confidence they built. I asked Shelly rhetorically, “Do you think those kids, if a friend comes to them and offers them drugs, are going to hear my voice in their head saying, ‘What are you, nuts? Don’t take that!'” I answered my own question, “I think not.”
Whereas most everyone I’ve ever asked that question of has said, “Yeah, it’s tough,” or “Hmm, I know what you mean,” or “Of course not,” Shelly simply said, “I think they will.”
I had never heard that before. I was a bit gobsmacked, like Carlos. So I took that nugget like he took his pencils, and I’m going to hold tight to it, so that it’s never taken away from me again.