New Mercies I See

You, God, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, and my foot from stumbling, so I’ll walk before the Lord in the land of the living. —Psalm 116:8-9

I’m surprised to find myself living still. When I was forty, I wondered how long I would have and how I would use that time. Circumstances had alerted me. I had been delivered from death, tears, and stumbling. Now what? I can’t say that I actually made a conscious list of goals, but I certainly was choosing a deliberate direction to walk before the Lord in the land of the living.

I learned to recognize God at work in my life—everyday—in communion with others. In my home love bloomed; with friends laughter and work flourished; in teaching love soothed adolescent behavior; reminders of god’s covenant spread like water.

Life was simpler than I had believed, made simpler by God’s presence in my beginning thoughts, my daily choices, my reactions.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’ve made mistakes, ridiculous ones. I have had my share of shameful moments. Intemperate outbursts. Painful and confusing sidetracks. Oops, try not to do that again! What is wrong with you, woman?! Get a grip!

Recently, one afternoon I was loading a cart of groceries into the trunk of my car. I was bone tired, overheated, thirsty. I needed to return my cart. Which way was faster, the front door of Kroger’s or the cart return in the parking lot?

A woman with two grandchildren was approaching. The children, dressed in school clothes, playfully pushed their grocery cart. The grandmother must have noticed my fatigue.

“Verona, take this woman’s cart back to the store for her.”

The sweet child, her hair in plaits, smiled and said, “Yes ma’am.”

“Watch the cars, now.” The cart was almost as tall as the child. A truck waited.

It was an ordinary act, simple, gracious, kind. God in the living.

I’m grateful to be among the living, to have witnessed love enacted in a Kroger parking lot. It reminded me again how our job as Christians is to see God at work in the world here and now and to join in that work. I like walking with the Lord here – in the land of the living.

Morning by morning new mercies I see.

Maya

I’m wondering what Maya thinks of Ayanna Presley’s win in Massachusetts with the propelling message, “Change can’t wait.”

Maya sat in a front row seat in my junior English class. She carried herself gracefully, artfully downplaying her natural beauty with jeans and tee shirts, her colorful bracelets hinting at the sparkle behind her conservative front.

Maya wasn’t a girl to be ignored. If she did poorly on an assignment, she’d stay after class with questions. Could she do another assignment to practice what she had missed? She was determined to improve.

Her reading journal hinted of deep fears, trouble at home, barriers of poverty and insecurity. She wrote that the only way to improve one’s situation was through education and association with good people. However normal that sounds, for her it was an imperative that couldn’t wait.

One day she asked if she could meet with me privately. Apparently something I had written in her journal had caused her to trust me. “I have to barricade my sister and myself in my room at home. My mom’s cousin won’t leave us alone.”

Imagine delaying going home by participating in after school sports and tutoring, taking the bus home, grabbing something to eat and using the bathroom before “he” shows up, and then pushing furniture against the bedroom door. Those were the circumstances under which Maya had done homework and slept ever since she had entered puberty, three years earlier. Now she felt she had to protect her sister as well.

Near the end of the school year when counselors came to our classrooms to enroll students in classes for the next school year, Maya asked me to recommend her for AP English, a demanding course of literature taught by an exceptional teacher, Anne Padilla. Maya was underprepared for AP English. I tried to dissuade her.

“Was AP English the best course in the department?”

“Yes, but…”

“Then that’s where I need to be.”

I spoke to Mrs. Padilla. “She’s not prepared but she wants the challenge. It will mean extra work for her and you. She might fail.”

My colleague was known for her compassion and her high standards. I was prepared to disappoint Maya, but instead, after Mrs. Padilla agreed to take her, I returned with “You’re in. She will accept you based on your willingness to do your best.”

Which is exactly what happened. Maya entered with a deficit in composition skills and passed the class, graduating with the kind of personal achievement not measured by standardized testing.

Maya went to our local university. Beyond that, she faded into the community. Like almost all my students, she exists in my memory as an adolescent. I would like to think that when she heard about Ms. Presley’s winning the democratic nomination in Massachusetts, she nodded and thought, “Yes, ma’am. Change can’t wait.”

Tasha

She was hefty and noisy.  Definitely Imposing. That was my first impression.  Exactly who was going to be in charge?  Her or me?

Her followers established a tight perimeter in seats around her.  Uh huh.  Uh huh. Yes ma’am.  But no ma’am. I ain’t gonna read no books, no ma’am.  I ain’t never read a book in my life. Ain’t gonna start now!  No ma’am.

To Queen Tasha, the aggressive guard of the girls’ basketball team, all space was like a basketball court.  There were her teammates, her coach, and her opponents. Her job was to protect her teammates, advance the ball, and outflank her opponents. Believe me when I say she didn’t exactly think of me as her coach.

Her basketball coach, a firm supporter of academics, was a no-nonsense gal who also taught math.  I walked alongside Coach J after lunch one day.

“If Tasha refuses to read books in my class, she will fail English III.”

”Oh, she’ll read the books, all right, or lose court time,” she promised. “I will speak with her.”

My next move was to find a book that she would like.  In the library was a worn out paperback about a female professional basketball player who had come up through poverty, broken free of a family drug culture, and become a powerful figure on the court in high school and college, and built a professional career as a player and coach.  The star’s miraculous story included the touching rescue of her little brothers, whom she raised.

I placed the book on shelves with other books available for independent reading.  Would she find it?

On book selection day, I did my usual introduction and turned the students loose in the room to browse through books.  I struggled to be casual, hanging around to answer questions and give encouragement, alert, however, to what Tasha was doing.

She had left her desk and was picking through books as if they were slimy slugs.  Then she paused.  In her hand was the worn out paperback I had planted among newer books.  She was taking it to her desk.  One of her friends was also interested in the book, but competitive Queen Tasha wasn’t about to part from it.  “You can read it when I finish.”  When I sent the sign up sheet around, she wrote the book’s title next to her name.

Signing up for a book isn’t exactly reading.  We wouldn’t know until later if she was actually reading it.

Two days later, Tasha burst into the classroom waving the book.  “This is the best book ever!  Do you know what this girl did!?”

She didn’t want to do anything in class except read her book — a new issue.  I left her alone, because not participating in independent reading would insure failure, whereas not participating in short classroom exercises would only lower her average, not fail her.  Perhaps if she turned into a willing reader, she would take an interest in other activities.

In writing a personal narrative, she struggled to find the words to show how, when she was five years old, social services and the police had taken her and her three siblings from their mother one night.  Like other non-readers, she could express herself freely aloud but not on paper.

“Let’s give your story time to develop,” I suggested. “You can add to it and revise it over time.”

Soon Queen Tasha was quieting the classroom.  One look from her and the strutting mac-daddy’s would straighten up.  She brooked no nonsense from her friends.  “Show respect!”  She’d say to them.  My classroom discipline problems were being solved by the very student who had attempted a take over.

With every book she read, she discovered more language.  She practiced sentences.  She bragged about her new vocabulary. She learned to code switch from black English vernacular to standard English.

Tasha finished English III with an A.  She joined a school leadership team, she applied to college, she excelled on the court.

Imagine her happy and warm, not angry; progressive, not defensive.  To be hugged by her was to be completely enveloped, her enthusiasm like a down comforter.

In college, she continued her leadership roles.  “I’m going to be a teacher,” she said.  And so she did.

Addy

One afternoon I received a phone call from the office.  “Mrs. Simmons, a former student, Addy…wishes to see you.  May I send her back?” 
Addy? Oh my! I thought. Really? Addy from my junior and senior English classes.  That Addy!
I rose from my desk to open my locked door.   There was Addy with a chubby blonde toddler in her arms. 
“Mrs. Simmons, this is my boy Johnny.”
“Johnny, this is the lady who taught me to read so I could read books to you.”
“Please come in.  We have lots to talk about.”
Indeed!  Three years had passed since I had first met Addy, one of my most remarkable students, not for what she knew but for what she gained. 
Here is the story I have to tell about Addy.
*********
Addy slipped quietly into a desk in an outside row near my desk.  Wearing jeans and a tan crew neck tee, she was short and sturdy with dirty blonde hair pulled into a ponytail. In a crowd she could have been easily missed, overlooked or dismissed. 
Each year on the first day of class students entered, one after the other, usually selecting a desk near a friend. I studied their entrances: who was friend to whom, who was shy, who was boisterous, who seemed confident, who didn’t have an obvious friend?  Addy spoke to no one.
Prior to opening day, I had checked the school data base for pictures of my students, studied their state test scores, and read through their disciplinary records.  Addy’s record was blank except for her recent enrollment date. 
Records for new students are obtained from their prior schools.  When Addy’s record finally arrived, it indicated poor school attendance and spotty state test scores.  She was missing high school credits because of failing grades.  
She was certainly earnest, recording all assignments in her weekly calendar and turning in each assignment on time.  Each assignment was perfectly presented as required: Name, date, and  identified from the appropriate page of a book or worksheet — except the content she wrote didn’t follow directions.  Words were spelled accurately but were unrelated to the objective. I tried verbal teaching, asking and listening aloud.  The results were the same: name, date, assignment identity, unrelated words or blank stares.
I created increasingly simple exercises and goals for her.  What was her baseline?   Could she spell simple words if she heard them.  Yes.  Could she write a sentence, a paragraph?  No.  What could she read?  I noticed that when I gave her the same assignments her neighbors received, her responses were better than on independent assignments. That’s when I caught onto her surreptitious copying.  
Independent reading was an essential program in all my classes.  Students selected a book to read each quarter, kept a reading journal, took quizzes, and did independent projects based on an idea or theme promoted by the book. Obviously Addy would not be able to read a book.
What exactly was her reading disability?  Maybe she had learned reading skills in broken, interrupted pieces, like when we sleep through parts of a movie.  We would know how the movie began but wouldn’t know how to connect the middle to the ending. 
“Tell me, Addy, about your first school,”  I asked one day during a tutoring session.
“It was in Wheelwright. First grade.  Daddy got laid off and we moved.  He left to go for work in West Virginia and Momma and me and my brothers moved in with Granny.”
“And where did you go to school next.”
“I missed a lot of second grade.  My granny got sick and my momma had to work so I stayed home with Granny.”
“So you were kind of in and out of school for awhile?”
“Yeah.  A lot. We moved around.  Momma would need me at home.  And I was sickly. I missed school.  I kept askin’ to go, but Momma said I had to stay home.”
“This happens sometimes,” I said. 
When parents move, there can be major gaps before their child is reenrolled in school.  Sometimes, the child is needed at home to care for an ailing relative.  Sometimes, a parent wants to keep the child at home for chores or comfort.  Or the parent is keeping one step of eviction orders.  All of these disruptions in education had happened to Addy.
I didn’t ask Addy if she could read.  I said, “Reading is like solving a jigsaw puzzle.  If some of the pieces are missing, the puzzle cannot be solved.  Let’s find the missing pieces for your puzzle.”  
She could have said, “I can already read.  I don’t need help.”  But she didn’t.  Her face brightened.  “Can we do that!?”
We plunged ahead, beginning with books published for readers of a second language, as if she were beginning a new language.  Her progress was remarkable, probably because she was definitely filling in missing pieces of a verbal puzzle.  She would polish off one level, and begin another, and then another.  
At the end of the year, she presented a project to her classmates about non-readers and told her story.  The class responded with genuine applause.  My eyes watered.
When school started the next year, she happily announced her pregnancy.  In her family teen pregnancy was common, even celebrated.  She had plans.  She and the boyfriend would marry, get an apartment, take turns working and finishing school.  Her mamma would live with them.  Indeed, she remained in school and graduated as the first of her family to receive a high school diploma.
* * *
That a high school student might advance two grades forward without requisite reading skills may seem inconceivable.  It is rare but it does happen.  
Teachers learn to recognize the clues: misbehavior meant to distract a class from its work and throw the teacher off track; boycotting the work in order to gain parental support for withdrawing from school; copying work by other students; using listening skills to gain information; bribing others to do his/her work.  
In Addy’s case, she was polite, considerate, and diligent.  Even if she could only write her name and the date, she always turned “her work” in on time.  I suspected Addy had copied enough work to slip through the system.  
I bet you are still thinking, But how!? This is so wrong!
A student may have been recommended for exceptional education services but the parents to avoid the label of a “special education” objected.   The child would then develop the aforementioned coping skills (misbehavior, cheating, etc). 
The curriculum may not have been sufficiently rigorous.  A teacher may have felt helpless.
The student might have been so like-able to have won a free pass over and over in hopes that  maybe over time, she would fill in the gaps herself like Abe Lincoln did.
I’m not going to defend the teachers that failed to do due diligence for the Addys of our schools. However, anytime a child pops in and out of school, the educators’ ability to assess and strengthen a child’s skills weakens proportionately.  
In overcrowded classrooms with minimal resources, as is the case in many schools in distressed economic zones, or in states notorious for underfunding education, teachers struggle with extraordinary, incredible situations.  Children locked out of their homes at night. AWOL mothers.  Alcoholic and abusive parents.  Hungry kids.  Angry kids.  Sad, frightened kids.  Kids begging to go to school.  Kids begging for help.  Kids without coats.  Maybe the child can’t read, but at least the school staff sees that she is fed and clothed, and safe. It happens.  
And all the while, the child is growing, until one day, she is five foot two, fertile, and two years from entering the full time job market, even though she can’t read an instruction manual for work or a book to her child. And there she is hoping she can by osmosis learn until finally her reading problem is so noticeable that a teacher steps in to help her.  I’m only one of thousands of teachers who filled that need, but note, I worked in a fully resourced and well funded school district. Giving extra attention to Addy was not a stretch for me.  
Addy saved herself by expecting to learn, by asking to go to school, by being willing and grateful.  She was fortunate to have finally landed in a place that could help her fulfill her hopes.  
______
All names of people and places are changed in the story, except for my own.  

Kevin

Could it be?  A friend request on FB from a Kevin Johnson*, boat captain offering private cruises out of Virginia Beach.  
Only one Kevin Johnson crossed my life path, in Drama class thirty years ago, in the beat up trailer called a classroom behind a rural high school. 
My entry into public education as an English teacher had required my acceptance as a drama teacher and coach.  “We need an English teacher who will also take the drama classes and direct the plays.  Will you do it?” Asked the assistant principal at my interview.  
I needed a job quickly.  I didn’t hesitate.  “Sure!”  Little did I know how dramatic this acceptance would unfold with characters like Kevin whom I would remember forever.
Kevin, handsome with dark curly hair and twinkling brown eyes, had a perpetual mischievous smile above a strong cleft chin.  His glib style followed him right over the threshold into the classroom where he continued wooing his classmates with his endless charm.  On the first day of class, I waited quietly for him to settle down.  
Eventually everyone turned toward me, everyone but Kevin who continued with an outrageous story about a weekend keg party in the woods and sheriff’s deputies and getaways.  Everyday would begin the same, unless I could challenge Kevin immediately.  He obviously had leadership potential, and he certainly understood dramatic story lines.
Within a few days the students formed three drama casts, each with a student director. Obviously Kevin had to be one of the directors.  He could memorize lines and deliver them in character.  He was a natural with body language and understood blocking.
And then one day, he arrived looking disheveled and depressed.  His ebullience faded.  He refused to participate.  He became like a disruptive three year old, hell bent on earning negative attention.  Usually, mildly disruptive behavior can be ignored until the student self-corrects.  But Kevin’s behavior worsened.  He deliberately interfered with presentations by his classmates. Once he threw a book across the room.
I removed him from class for two days.  Maybe a cooling off would work.  When he returned, he was sullen.  “That makes sense,” I thought.  “He is going to pout. But for how long?”  Passive resistance can be just as disturbing as manic disruptions.
Was he using?  Pot? Uppers? Downers?  Alcohol?  His behavior was erratic and unpredictable.  He began to hang around, sometimes apologizing, sometimes scapegoating.  
His behavioral record on file showed disciplinary actions from alternative in school and out of school suspensions, truancy violations, and substance abuse suspicions.  Yet, he was utterly charming and appealing.  
He had little respect for authority and a weak moral compass; that was obvious.  He craved attention.  He was narcissistic to the core, lying for personal advantage, inventing stories, contradicting facts, deliberately flaunting school rules.
Our class occurred during lunch.  That is, half the hour was scheduled prior to a thirty-five minute lunch break, the other half afterwards.  I decided Kevin needed more attention from me.  With the Principal’s approval, I kept Kevin with me during lunch.  On sunny days, Kevin and I walked around the football field’s perimeter.  
At first, he was quiet. Then curious.  In time he stopped telling me outrageous stories about a  dysfunctional broken home, where he and his brother were victims, locked out, or forced to drink with his mom.  I figured a small percentage of his tales were true, the rest meant to shock  and gain sympathy.  I said very little during his era of tall tales, my goal being the reduction of misbehavior in his classes.  
Because Kevin could act and had a strong baritone voice, I cast him as the lead in Grease.  A wanna be mix of James Dean and John Travolta, he fit the part. 
“Now, Kevin, understand this.  You have a lead role. You have responsibilities, parts to memorize, practice schedules, etcetera….We are entrusting you with an important role. I’m backing you over the objections of my colleagues because I believe in you.”
“I get it.  I won’t disappoint you.”
And he didn’t, although I watched him like a hawk, keeping him busy as a director’s aide.
He didn’t come apart until after the performance, when he went on a bad behavior binge for a few days, as if he couldn’t stand the self-discipline one more day.  
For his Senior year, Kevin was allowed to take a second year of drama after I requested him, to the relief of his counselor.  I no longer had to keep him in at lunchtime, though he would hang around sometimes.  As a senior, he began to express concern about his younger brother, a sophomore who had a worst disciplinary record than he.  I learned about how the boys helped their dad with a business mowing the right-aways along state highways.  Their dad took them to ball games, had them over for barbecues, fixed their cars, was active in their lives.  The mother drank; she would be fine then not.  The boys adored her and helped her.  She frustrated them.  She was lonely then happy then lonely.  The family break up had been difficult on her.  Kevin’s moods were tied to her well being.  He felt responsible; too often he wanted more than his share of relief and attention, more than any of us actually receive on any given day, as if accumulated deprivation entitled him.
His situation invited trouble for teenagers in broken homes, with unsteady parenting, especially when alcohol abuse is involved and weak permissions blur decision lines. While attending the local university, he was picked up for possession of drugs.  
I wrote him a letter while he was in jail.  I was sad.  I believed in him.  He could, if he willed it, overcome his situation but it would be more than difficult.  I wasn’t exactly sure I believed my own words.  If he was using and selling cocaine, he was headed for deep trouble.
Afterwards he came to see me at home.  Sitting across from me on a sofa, he sorted through the lead up to consequences he hadn’t imagined.  He wanted to do better.  He wasn’t sure he was capable.  What should he do?
He was receiving addiction treatment as part of his sentence, parole with community service.  He had withdrawn from the university, was working, and living with his mother.  
Within the year I saw he had been indicted for theft.  He came to see me again.  He had stolen from a relative in order to buy drugs.  He was ashamed.  We repeated the previous conversation, except this time, I asked, “What do you want from me, Kevin?”
“I want a normal family like yours.”
“Kevin, what you think is so wonderful here hasn’t been gained easily.  Let me tell you a story or two…”. When I finished, he had learned how my mother had died when I was one week from turning thirteen, my children’s father and I had divorced, I held two jobs to pay the mortgage and cover college expenses, and so on.  What came easily was love.  That was the glue in our life.  Love and faith.  
“Kevin, you can do that too when you are ready.  I don’t know when that will be.  Some people have to lose everything, to find love, to experience faith. I want it to be easier for you, but I can’t promise you it will be.”
“I guess this means I can’t date your daughters.”  He half-joked.
Kevin was sentenced and served his time.  He came to see me after his parole release, after the birth of his little girl. This time, he talked about his baby girl, how he wanted to be a good father.
A year later I saw he had been charged with theft and fraud.  Third time.  Persistent felon.  Oh, oh, this was going to be serious.  
He showed up at the backdoor.  “I’m in serious trouble.  I stole my girlfriend’s credit cards, emptied her bank account, and wrote bad checks.”
“What about your child?”
“I’m not allowed to see her.”
He cried.  “I think I have finally lost everything.”
When I asked him why he had stolen from the child’s mother, he said, “I was so angry with her.  She wouldn’t let me see our baby girl.  So stupid.”
I listened while my husband hovered around the deck, making up yard chores just so Kevin could see him nearby.
Finally, Kevin rose to leave.  He hugged me.  “Thank you for all the love you have shown me.  I want you to know I would never steal from you.”
Kevin was sentenced to federal prison as a persistent felon.  I never saw him again until he showed up on FB last year.  A yacht captain.  Still handsome with some middle aged heft.  His photos are of gorgeous seascapes; pictures of him, his brother, and dad; a blurry I love you, Mom photo; a photo of his mother with a newborn, presumably Kevin; “loving and blessed” photos of Kevin with a pretty, smiling woman; a house in the woods; yachts; sailboats; artwork; barbecues; even a high school photo —everything positive, creative, kind, blessed.    
His profile lists university studies, a nearby county residence, his profession as sea boat captain.  I think he righted himself, don’t you?  It took awhile but he got there.  In 2014 he sold his boat Whiskey Jack so he could buy a sailing yacht and take his dad on a last cruise. I like the sound of that.  
_____
* I use pseudonyms for names in my 2018 blog posts and disguise places.  In the case of this particular story, I created conversations and timelines true to the situation.  It was impossible to remember every detail exactly.  The frame, however, is truthful.  

Sandra

She sat against the wall, three rows back from the teacher’s desk, with the windows at her back. Her short blonde hair formed a ragged frame around her thin face. Dressed in worn jeans and a faded tee, she could have blended innocuously into the mix of juniors lined up in tight rows in the dilapidated trailer masquerading as my classroom, except for her eyes. Her eyes held a determined gaze, keen and steady.
I passed around a seating chart. Her name was Sandra.*  Later I checked the roster for her address. Trailer Park. The one nearby with the abandoned vehicles and muddy lanes. 
In classroom discussions Sandra showed she had prepared for class. She read the books we discussed.She did well on multiple  choice tests but dismally with short essays or personal journals. Sandra couldn’t complete a sentence. She wrote single words or phrases in patterns meaningful only to her.
In exercises, Sandra could identify which sentences were complete and correct, and which ones were not, but could not write a logical, complete sentence.  She could argue fluently out loud but not on paper.   Puzzling, I thought. 
She agreed to work privately with me twice a week during a study period. We can fix this, I believed. We would do sentence exercises. Combine parts of sentences. Analyze sentences for parts of speech. Use sentence exercises with prepositional phrases, adverb and adjective clauses. Determine sentence types. She mastered the exercises. 
But in her classroom journal her opinions, reflections, and narratives persisted as ragged words and phrases separated by periods and sometimes by blank spaces. 
Tell me what you mean here, I’d ask.  She couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me. 
Our classroom had once been a trailer on a construction site.**  It was thin and long, not a double wide. The school district at the time was underfunded while the population had quickly grown beyond the physical capacity of its facilities. As a temporary solution, the district had purchased used trailers and parked them behind schools. Students walked out into the elements to get to literature and language classes. 
On rainy days the roof leaked so badly in our classroom that I kept a mop and bucket handy. When I complained about leaks, the janitor brought me big coffee cans to catch the leaks. The floor had soft spots, rotted flooring.  Fiberglass insulation fluffed from holes in the back wall. Students sometimes picked at the insulation, pulling it out further or stuffing it back. In August and September a window air conditioner hummed noisily and often had to be reset. In December and January, the heater either roasted us or failed to warm us. 
One grey winter day as the rain pummeled the metal roof and the wind rocked the trailer, Sandra spoke up, “You’d think that our government would provide us with classrooms better than what I live in!”  Water was once again dripping into cans on the floor. I was mopping up puddles walked in by students entering from the broken sidewalk outside. 
“That’s right!” echoed her classmates. 
“What’s wrong with the leaders that they are sending us to learn in junky trailers like this?”
“What would you like to do about it?”  I asked. 
“Let’s write a letter.  Can we?  To the school board!”
“And the superintendent,”  chimed others. 
“Okay, what do you want to say?”  I shelved the lesson and opened a brainstorming session until all their grievances about the trailer were listed on the blackboard. 
Sandra took over. She couldn’t write the letter but she could direct its composition, which took three days of negotiations between the students and the selection of a best writer. The students signed the letter, made copies, and mailed them.  Our principal was bemused by their audacity. I didn’t have tenure yet. I felt vulnerable. Within the month, maintenance repaired the roof and secured metal plates over rotted flooring.  The assistant principal directed a janitor to cover the holes in the walls and delivered to me a desk with drawers that opened and a rolling chair. 
Sandra’s weekly journal began to make more sense. The daffodils were blooming. Redbuds and pear trees flowered. It must have been late March when I opened her journal on a Sunday afternoon and read, “My stepfather abuses my sisters and me while my mother watches.”  A complete sentence, not just one complete sentence but one after another detailing years of sexual and emotional abuse of three terrified girls. Anguish in complete sentences. And finally the last sentence:  “…promise not to tell anyone. He might kill us.”
State law requires teachers to report such information to school authorities. I met with a school counselor and the principal. Protocols are in place to protect children victimized by parents or guardians. I didn’t need to determine if Sandra was lying or if I should protect her privacy. The safety of the girls was primary. 
Sandra, on the Monday after I shared her journal with school authorities, had been called to the front office and then disappeared off my roster. “Transferred.”
The ensuing scenario was revealed in snippets. A police car. A thank you from the counselor. A wordless pat on the back by the principal. Headlines in the local newspaper: Parents arrested on multiple counts; Step-father pleads not guilty; Mother accepts plea bargain. Until one day, I saw that the step-father had been severely  sentenced, the mother receiving a lesser sentence but one that would remove her from her daughter’s’ lives for years. 
Sandra eventually graduated with honors from the local university. She was active in university life and worked in programs to assist students like herself. I would see her on campus during my summer work in Upward Bound. We never talked about her journal or that fateful day when social services swept in to protect the three girls.
The fragmented sentences?  They were a symptom immune to book exercises and communication drills. The subtext had been fear of disclosure and discovery, the fragments a code for “Help us.”  
_______________
  • Not her real name.  The name “Sandra” means warrior.  In every story of my 2018 blog posts, I do not use real names of people and avoid specific references to school names and actual years.  
** The state of Kentucky eventually revised and improved funding for school districts.  The high school was renovated and expanded, the trailers hauled off.  

Preface to 2018 blogposts: love is a birth right.

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.