Monday, August 4, 2008
I love receiving comments on my blog (hint! hint!) Some come in the "comments" section and others via email. After my recent blog about my student Alex and how I failed to reach him, an old friend sent me this beautiful letter about what she learned in a difficult teaching situation. So, with her permission, my friend Grace will be our Guest Blogger today.
Sometimes God has to keep at me before I agree to really contemplate a difficult situation. He is at it again. And using you as an angel again. I have been putting a lot of thought into when and how to get back into teaching... preparing for the future when I will want to work full time. I can use the multitude of options and obstacles as an excuse for my hesitance. But the truth He has forced me to come to terms with in the last few weeks is this.... my first year of teaching was the worst disaster and the greatest learning experience of my career... Almost 20 years later I still struggle to make sense of it.
When Jesse Helms died a few weeks ago, I was instantly taken back to Monroe, NC where I had my first teaching job. The racial relations at Monroe High School were volatile to say the least. It was a white male student who told me the tale of the elder Helms, a sheriff around the time of the civil rights movement, dragging black men into the jail at night and setting them free the next morning with bumps and bruises.
I didn’t make it through the first year. I resigned in February. Of course, there were lots of reasons, but it all boiled down to a single incident: one of my students threw someone else's papers and pencil out the window. It sounds silly out of context. I wrote him up and sent him to the office. He returned to my classroom the next day accompanied by the assistant principal who explained to me that, while the infraction warranted it, the student could not be sent to in- school suspension because he had reached the maximum allowed. He would have to be given out-of-school suspension or remain in the classroom. The student just gave me his usual devious smile and walked casually to his seat while every other student sat wild-eyed.
After class I really did try to explain to them that they had just given this kid a free pass to do everything short of hurt another student for the remainder of the year. But giving a black student OSS for throwing papers out the window would not play out well with the public. So this led to the other incident...
The administrators agreed to periodically sit in on my class. One day as the students were taking their seats the principal came into my General Math class. He greeted me and surveyed the room. Suddenly he was yelling at a student. "Stop looking at her! If you look at your teacher like that one more time...!!!"
It took me a minute to figure out who he was talking to. But then I could see the glare between Mr. Martin and Anthony who had arrived early and was already seated in his favorite spot in the back corner of the room. I don't remember what I actually did. I only remember that I wanted to slap Mr. Martin.
Anthony was a very fragile student. It had taken me months to earn his trust. Anthony had come to adore me -- as a teacher who would not ridicule him or allow others to belittle him. We had come to an understanding that if he gave me his best and finished his work, he could have some construction paper and work on his sketches while I helped the others.
Although he didn't want anyone to know it, he was one of the brightest students in that low-level class. Everyone else had to call him "AB", but he actually loved it when I called him Anthony. This black student who had never threatened me or tormented his classmates was being publicly punished in a most intimate cruel way... for what?!
So there I was... stuck with the student I never was able to reach and diminished in the eyes of the student with whom I had managed a miracle. And that makes me want to recite all of the other little things that played into the decision to resign so that I can convince myself that I did the right thing. But I will always wonder if I could have done more for both of them.
Your story about Alex reminded me of Anthony. And then yesterday, as I was unpacking the basement, Erin found the gift Anthony gave me on my last day. It was a sketch that he had worked on for some time. The sketch that was causing him to really look at me. I discussed the sketch with the girls. They could all tell it was supposed to be me. I think that he made my eyes much more prominent and pretty than they are in reality. The focus he put on the eyes still makes me wonder if he believed that I could really see something in him that others could not.