Stand Strong

I’ll miss him.

I’ll never forget when he first came in for his reading assessments last August.  Smiling, he boogied in–with speed unrelated to size–dove in, and a half-hour later, we were almost through before he piped up and said, “Ah! Not this story again!”  He’d already been tested for the school year by the other interventionist.  And tested during summer school.  And for the year before.  And the year before that.  And I didn’t know because the tests were all squirreled away in a file for students who—with our limited resources (time, money, hope)—we couldn’t justify fitting in.

But his teacher wanted intervention anyways.  And I did too.  So I fit him in.

And I didn’t know his whole story.  I heard he lived with his grandma; I knew that he had a slightly embarrassing health issue; that he loved to contradict, in a good-natured, know-it-all way.

And I knew that he was almost always smiling–with crinkled-face, cheeks puffed out, and eyes narrowed down to the tiniest slices—and that if he wasn’t smiling he was shouting.  He’d always forget himself and, in his super-chill inflection, shout, “Hey!  Miss Amy!” down the hall–especially those last few weeks of school when reading groups were canceled because I was put on testing duty–and his teacher knew his story, and would gently remind him not to shout, and allow him to break line and come over to hug me.  And I’d tell him I missed having reading groups so much.

“I miss you, buddy!”  I’d say, each time.

But the day I saw him after school, he wasn’t smiling.  I was in my car, leaving the school parking lot, and he couldn’t see me but I could see him.  And he was nothing like himself.  There was a man in front of him–gesturing, yelling–and E.’s head was down and his shoulders were hunched, in a stance of fear that suggested if he was to look up, he’d get smacked.

And it hurt to see, but I had to let it go.  And I drove off.

 

***********************************

We can’t save these students like we’re superheroes.

These students deal with issues involving language deficits, neglect, abuse, crime, gun violence, financial instability, parental incarceration, drug abuse, and plain old “We’re getting evicted” trauma.   And the issues in schools have become like untreated superbugs.

A fellow teacher said recently:

“I don’t know how we’re supposed to teach them if they can’t focus on the material because they just saw their dead uncle’s heart carved out and lying on their chest.  How am I supposed to go from THAT to teaching him math?”

And the teachers didn’t sign up for such challenges, and the very best ones, know that they’re often juggling plates topped with hand-grenades.  And that we can’t save them.  And that we can’t make life fair.

And the stress is intense.  And can suck a teacher under if they don’t find some modicum of hope.

But the best ones do.

Last year, one student, M., got in trouble, and, as I talked to him about it, I naively said, “M., you’re better than this.  What would your parents say if they saw you doing this?”  And he said, “My mom would probably just ground me, and my dad is always drunk so he wouldn’t care.”  And I recovered, then asked whether—regardless of his parents–getting in trouble was what he wanted for himself.  And he responded by saying he had no vision for what he wanted, and no idea what he wanted to be when he grew up.

And when M. came in this year for his end-of-year test, his teacher said something so powerful, it gave me chills.

Before logging in to their computers to take this high-stakes 3rd grade test, this teacher had all students sit with hands in their laps, and look at her, while repeating their classroom mantra–slowly and calmly, emphasis shifting—to themselves:

 

I can do hard things.             I can do hard things.                  I can do…hard things.

 

And it was so powerful.

Yes; the best teachers find hope.  Because they realize that these students need someone to acknowledge that things can be hard; that they need someone to tell them that life won’t always be fair.

And most of all they need someone to show them that success feels good but will require that they stand strong and–regardless of circumstance–keep doing their best.

 

*****************************

At the start of the school year, he’d guess at every 5th word.  So he could seem fast, and show off for the other kids in the group.  And, of course, he got every fifth word wrong.

So I asked him—as I did all my students—“So, E.  Who exactly do you think you’re competing with when you read so fast?”

And he answered, as most did, with the name of the fastest and best reader in his class.  And I shook my head and said, “No!  You’re not competing with them.  The only person you are competing with is YOU.”

I wish I had a picture of his face when I showed him his end of year reading scores.

If I am to remember E.G., I will remember him smiling and speeding towards me.  I’ll remember having to pry him off me—since they aren’t really supposed to hug teachers—saying, with mock toughness, “Alright, alright.  Enough already, you crazy kid.”  And he’d smile.

And, if he is to remember me, I hope it’s the moment when I told him—on the last day of school, tears in his 2nd grade eyes—that just because he was moving schools, didn’t mean I wouldn’t be there for him.

“No matter where you end up, E., you’ll know where to find me.”  And I pointed to the linoleum floor, “I’ll be right here.”

(Gulp back tears.)

E. will always be the reason why I stand strong.  Because succumbing to trials is easy, but not what I want for him.

What I want for him is to know that his head might be lowered but his mind can stand strong and face the adversity before him.

What I want for him is to know that life is filled with hardship.  But that–by temperament or choice–he’s a survivor.

What I want for him is to know that he can do hard things.

And what I want for him is to know that I’ll be here, standing strong beside him amidst the harsh world we share–in mind if not body–for every single day that’s to come.

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