Teaching can be a pretty thankless profession lots of times. It often feels like a job where you’re just a cog in a poorly functioning bureaucracy. We get fits of inspiration and gratitude from our students, passing – if any – encouragement from our beleaguered administrations, and an exhausting evening spent doing who knows what for tomorrow and the future.
In my career, the parents of my students have run the gamut. For every family with five daughters in college, there’s the family headed by a single alcoholic father who is unable to cope with his life’s tragedies. For every mother who sends the periodic note of gratitude, there’s the mother who picks up their child in the afternoon without even a glance at me.
I don’t doubt whether these parents all love and care about their children, of course. Nor am I in a position to cast judgement on them and their circumstances. It is simply the way things are.
This year, I have thought about one of my girls with whom I feel I haven’t made much of a connection. She’s not a troublemaker, nor does she distinguish herself with an insatiable desire to please. She doesn’t violate class procedures and routines, nor does she follow them with much consistency. She’s neither defiant nor does she appear at all driven.
She is, in truth, a talented artist. She loves all mediums of art. And while she doesn’t talk or write much or initiate conversation or focus for any significant length of time, there is a human being in there. So when she finds something to be too hard, she bangs the desk and groans. She becomes upset. She starts to give up.
Only in my class, giving up is not an option. We all signed a contract to that effect. Everyone needs to do their best and always try. It’s non-negotiable. So when she’s stressing an assignment too difficult for her, I tell her, “Come on, you have to try. Don’t give up. Do your best.” Past her giving it another attempt, there isn’t much acknowledgement toward me.
And so, back to parents. It turns out this particular girl’s mother found her way into my classroom this morning when the students were out.
“Are you Mr. Ray?”
She told me whose mother she is. She asked how her daughter is doing.
“Well, she’s really sweet and respectful. She’s a really nice girl. But she is having a lot of trouble focusing.”
The look says, “Tell me something I don’t know.”
But then, the gratitude.
“Mr. Ray, last year, she came home every day and cried. She hated school. She didn’t want to come to school.”
My face says, “How horrible. That’s so sad.” Mom continues.
“But this year, she comes home happy. She says she likes school.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful, I’m so glad.”
“And she says, ‘Mommy, I know I have some problems, but I’m going to try. I can do it.”
And I’m left speechless and touched. I thank mom so much for letting me know that. I feel less like a cog and more like the engine. Back at it tomorrow to figure out how to reach this special young lady.