Since I am writing this on a Saturday and had a night to sleep on it, this post will be a bit more philosophical…
Friday I had a chat with one of my students who was having a rough day. In my experience, high school sob stories generally involve getting dumped or grounded the night of a big football game. Worst case, parents might be getting a divorce. This interaction revealed how naive I am.
She isn’t in physical danger, which is one thing I as a teacher am supposed to look out for in my students. However, her story made me wonder how many other students sit in class day after day with horror stories about how their parents, grandparents, or adults in their lives who are supposed to love and guide them instead cause them pain, stress, and emotional distress.
The experience gave me insight into how important I could be to some students who just need someone to talk to, an adult to look up to, or someone to say that yes, you are important.
I was reminded of the scene in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help when Abilleen tells her young charge, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important,” because she fears the little girl might never hear that from anyone else.
It also made me say a prayer of thanks for my incredibly supportive, encouraging parents. I didn’t grow up thinking that my situation was extraordinary, but the more I get to know my students, the more I am led to believe that my nuclear family whose best memories are formed around the kitchen table is a unique situation. I told one class that if they had any issues with the reading that they should absolutely bring them up — after all, I work at the school for their benefit. If they are not learning in class, then I am not doing my job. In a way, I work for them far more than I work for the school district. Several kids commented on how many teachers in their past who didn’t seem to have that as their goal. This made me sad, but it also motivated me. This is why I want to to teach.
Brief tangent (make the little circle/line sign): on the first day of school when I mentioned that we were going to read To Kill a Mockingbird, one girl pulled me aside and told me she wasn’t going to read it. I asked if it was for personal reasons, she nodded, and I didn’t get another chance to talk to her.
I spoke with my co-teacher, my mentor teacher, and the principal about this, and ended up writing a note to her mom to ask her to contact me; if I had parental approval then I would come up with an alternative assignment, though it obviously wasn’t my preference. I gave her the note, unsealed so she could read it, and received no mother contact.
We had the N-word discussion and while she didn’t participate (that wasn’t required – I knew some kids would be uncomfortable), she didn’t abstain from the work either. I caught her after we read chapter one aloud in class, and she said that she had started the book before, and made it about halfway through.
It turns out her last school had them read it out loud, in class, with no prior discussion as to language, and she was terrified of having to do that again. No wonder that freaked her out – Harper Lee purposefully makes the language awful to make the reader squirm. I assured her I wouldn’t have students reading the book aloud, and certainly wouldn’t require anyone to read anything aloud that made them uncomfortable. She asked if she could write me a letter detailing her feelings, and I agreed to read whatever she wrote.
The next day she handed me a three-page handwritten letter about why she was uncomfortable reading the book. I took the time to write her a three-page handwritten letter back.
- I thanked her profusely for taking the time to write down her emotions, and I appreciated her willingness to read the book.
- I explained why I felt TKAM is so important for teens to read; most teens have never taken the time to “climb inside someone’s skin and walk around in it.”
- I told her that to grow we must be challenged, and often challenge comes with feelings of discomfort.
- I told her than while many kids in her class professed out loud to not being offended by the N-word, their anonymous comment cards said differently.
- I told her how the book intends to make people uncomfortable — that I expect every student to experience discomfort while reading it, no matter how they feel about the language used.
- Finally, I told her how glad I was she was in my class, and how I looked forward to hearing more from her ask we continue.
I gave her my reply, and after telling her she wasn’t allowed to write a response during my class (the kids don’t know she’s not writing a note to someone else…), I received a second handwritten letter later that day.
She told me how she agreed with everything I said – how other kids needed that challenge (although I know she’ll benefit as well). She said she was glad she was in my class.
I will keep her letters forever; while she might not be willing to join in class discussion, I know she’ll be listening and thinking, and I hope she continues to feel comfortable writing to me. High school isn’t as much about academics as it is learning how to deal with other people, personal and relational conflicts, and growing into who you are going to be as an adult.
I had a student formally withdraw this week to complete a three-month GED program on his own. I mourn for him, because while he may have the sheet of paper, he will miss out on all the critical thinking training that he could have gained by staying in school.
My final thought is a bit confessional: at the pep rally yesterday, the football team basically said that while they didn’t expect to win, they would go into the game trying to win. I believed that they would lose; they were predicted to lose, and the other school was bigger and overall a better team. But when I picked up my morning paper this morning, lo and behold, they pulled it off, 33-26. I’m a little ashamed I had so little faith. I won’t be sharing that with my students. They need all the faith I can muster.