Before senility sets in, I want to share some people with you, dear readers. Although the characters for this year’s blog are today’s adults, in my memory they are still teenagers, budding into mothers, fathers, employees, employers, and sometimes unfortunately into prison inmates or victims of violence. For the most part, however, the characters represent determination bordering on heroism.
Because I cannot remember most of their names and because their identities should be private, I will be using pseudonyms for them. In every case each story happened after 1985 and before 2009, although to use actual dates would not serve my purpose since the events are more universal than particular, and representative of humankind’s hunger for justice, affection, and respect.
I was their teacher for an hour a day, for ten months. My lesson plans met all the requisite guidelines for curriculum and learning. I kept an orderly, hospitable classroom. I was always available to my students. I kept long hours, creating thoughtful activities, providing extra help when needed, returning papers quickly. But my stories will not to be about me, the teacher. If anything, they will be about me, the learner and them, the true instructors.
Once At a dinner party, a guest said to me, “Students today aren’t like they used to be. How do you manage?”
“Love,” I answered.
Her puzzled face revealed she hadn’t expected THAT one word answer. “No, I mean, we hear about how students are so disrespectful, how classroom discipline is almost impossible. What do you do to maintain order?”
“I love them.”
“How is that possible? Don’t they act out, refuse to cooperate?”
“Sometimes. Still my answer is the same. They believe I love them.”
The guest looked skeptical. I hadn’t convinced her, I could see. Even today over 20 years later, I can still see her eyes lifted toward me as if I were showing off or putting her down.
Restarting my work-life in my mid-forties required student teaching at a local high school known for its heavily disadvantaged students. That’s professional talk for misbehaving, rebellious, angry teenagers. Three weeks into the semester when I was thinking “I got this!” my supervising teacher asked, “Do you like them, the students?”
During my college classes no one had ever insisted on the topic of liking students. We studied educational psychology, learned how to understand adolescents, practiced manipulation strategies. “I’m not sure,” I answered honestly.
“You must learn to fake it ‘til you make it. Stand at the door to greet them with a welcoming smile. Ask them how they are. Mention last night’s game. Tell them you like their hair cuts, their shoes, whatever.”
So I did. And guess what? It worked! I learned how to worm my way into their personalities, to break through their barriers—a lesson I employed for ever after.
And I learned to appreciate each one, even the one who threatened to stab me, the one who urinated all over my desk, the one who sexually harassed me, the hoodlum, the stalker, the clown, the boss-man, the drama queen, the bully, the list goes on and on.
How is that possible? The guest had asked. Because—there was the sexually abused girl who saved her sisters. The foster boy who prevented a thief from stealing my camera. The girl from the projects who found love through reading. The bully who learned to share. The young mother-to-be who learned to read. The dyslexic brother and sister who overcame their disability with determination. The drug addict who struggled to free himself. The bullied gay boy who dodged discrimination and graduated. The liar who rewrote his senior paper twice before he grasped the concept of honest information. The rebellious boy whose grandmother turned him into a scholar. The boy raising his little sisters.
Most of my students were like my own children and grandchildren, just kids marching through high school, bell to bell, doing what they were supposed to do. I see them sometimes behind counters, in the clinics, at the grocery. I know them to be managers, physical therapists, teachers, techies, attorneys. These students came to me fully loved and nurtured; they were smart, disciplined, reliable people. You need to know that my classes were packed with such promising youngsters. I am however interested in convincing you that even struggling, damaged children, are worthy of our love and attention. Not every child receives what you and I know is their birth right, to be loved.
I hope you are ready for each of these stories. Stay tuned.