As a teacher in the city, I hear a lot of disparaging remarks about children, and I won’t lie – sometimes I’m the one saying them. As a disclaimer, I also talk trash about my family sometimes – when they’re annoying – but with the understanding that I love them unconditionally, and I will typically only share my frustrations with other family members. So too at school – I love my kids and will only vent my ire with other teachers who love them too. With family and students alike, I will challenge anyone who dares to denigrate them. And I will do so with stories like that which follows here.
For those of you who look at the youth of today and deem your own generation to be doomed once these youngfolk are taking care of you…
Two days before Thanksgiving, I asked students to write on any topic they chose. I teach a remedial reading class (“reading recovery” is what we call it these days), and studies show that while allowing students to write on their choice of topic encourages them to write more, having them read their own writing aloud helps them to develop reading fluency as well as understand their mistakes for themselves, without a teacher having to tell them that something doesn’t sound right. It beats teaching grammar rules that seem abstract and arbitrary to kids who struggle with reading – the rules make no sense on their own, but they can hear very clearly when something needs to be fixed.
Anyway, The students – four girls in this particular class – began to write feverishly for 20 minutes and had to be coerced by my pleading to stop. I would have let them keep at it, but sharing is an important part of this exercise.
I suppose each of them had Thanksgiving on the mind because all four of them wrote about how thankful they were to have their families surrounding them. This fact alone was touching enough; New York City kids are renowned for their tough exteriors and these girls are no exception, but they let their guard down just a bit. Each one of them let the rest of us in just a little.
But then Jennifer, who had so much to say she wrote two separate responses, wanted to share some more. Her first response was about how grateful she was for everything her mother brings into her life. Her second piece was about the day her father died.
She asked our permission to read it. We all told her she should feel free to share anything she was comfortable sharing.
The endearingly butch Laurie asked her if she was going to be okay reading it, if she could do it without crying. She didn’t ask this to taunt Jennifer, her tone was that of genuine concern for her friend who was about to share something very painful. Jennifer said she could do it and, furthermore, she really wanted to share it.
And so she read to us the story of being in Virginia with her mother eleven years ago when she was five years old. Her mother received a phone call from her husband’s friend telling her that her husband had suffered a massive heart attack and was in critical condition. Faced with a day-long bus-ride home, Jennifer’s mother didn’t want to distress her young daughter immediately when there was little to be done other than get home as quickly as possible. She told Jennifer a half-truth: her friend was sick and they had to return to New York as soon as possible. Jennifer was sad to leave her cousins in Virginia, but she respectfully returned with her mother. It wasn’t until they returned home that her mother said to her, “Baby, you know how I told you that my friend was sick? Well, that friend is your daddy.”
Jennifer couldn’t read any further. Laurie leaned over and held her so that Jennifer could cry on her shoulder. Lizette ran out to fetch a handful of toilet paper for her to blow her nose and wipe her eyes. Ivy grabbed a cup and ran to get some water, and all of this happened without instruction or hesitation. The two who left returned, and no one spoke, we just let Jennifer have her cry. When she’d calmed down enough to continue talking, she told us that the last time she saw her father was when he was in the hospital attached to machines; the image of him was so frightening to her five year old mind that she refused to speak to him. And then he died.
Jennifer pulled herself together again and thanked everyone for their help.
Several things I happened in this intensely emotional ten minutes of time that made me feel very proud of my students and secure in the future of humanity. The first is that we’ve created a space in our room that is so safe that students can articulate a need to share what hurts them most, and then actually share it. And the students are not just passively accepting, they are genuinely supportive of one another. I would like to take credit for this, but the truth is that this is the kind of atmosphere I’ve dreamed of creating and tried to create – never successfully – at my former school. No, most of the credit goes to the girls themselves. They’re just beautiful.
I’ve had philosophical (and typically cynical) discussions with friends about the nature of human communication in the age of MySpace. Those of us who did not grow up with the internet but have embraced it later in life feel the difference between talking with friends for hours on the phone or in person versus texting and messaging them. We feel like our own correspondence on many days feels insincere and trite by using these handy communication devices, and we wonder what it will be like when generations who have never experienced life without the internet grow up. I, too, felt a little apprehensive about the prospect, but I have to say the more time I spend with younger people, the better I feel. So even if they honestly think that anyone is spelled ne1 and write it thusly on their weekly quizzes, there are worse things than that. Spelling can be corrected if need be, but the lack of a kindhearted spirit is much harder to remedy…fortunately I don’t have to.