This Isn't Just a Job
I need boxes. It’s time to face reality, to start packing up my stuff. Forever. Brian is a student office aide - a good friend for a teacher to have when you need boxes in May. Brian stops by the classroom every day during lunch. He knocks first, knowing lunchtime is, in his words, “sacred teacher time.” A quick hello, and he’s off on errands. This day I ask him to keep his eyes open for a box or two. A half hour later he brings six, lids included.
Brian is not one of my ‘official’ students, but we’ve become friends these past four years. High school hasn’t always been easy for him. It’s hard to be an emotionally sensitive kid surrounded by peers who act so cool, so sure of themselves. Brian is a kind and accepting soul who is quite comfortable conversing with adults. Back in his freshman days he tended to be a bit too trusting.
It took awhile for Brian to recognize mean-spirited comments as verbal bullying, not bids for friendship. His counselor got him through, along with a few teachers who appreciated his good manners and upbeat sense of humor. His coping skills grew; so did his self esteem. This senior Brian who brings boxes is light years beyond that shy, fearful 14 year old I met four years ago.
“May I help you pack?” he asks. “No thanks, Brian. I’m a bit of a hoarder. I need to sort and pitch things first.” He watches quietly as I tackle the first shelf. Wow! Hidden under dozens of folders, I find a phonics book from my first year of teaching. I demonstrate how those antsy second graders practiced sounds out loud every day: C...O...A...D...G. He listens patiently, but I can see that he is thinking.
“You’re not a hoarder.” Brian finally answers. “You’re a collector. Collectors are very special people. They understand the significance of things.” It is Friday, and over the weekend I think of Brian’s words and realize what’s so precious about this kid. He’s honest, thoughtful - and real. No wonder he struggled during those scary early months of high school when so many of his classmates were wearing thin masks of self confidence. He never needed one.
Beyond that, Brian’s words help me forgive myself for being so sentimental. Yes, I’ll throw some things away, hopefully many things. I will also appreciate the significance of what I choose to keep; each thing is attached to a person, to a memory of that person, that child, that school year. For some of my students, these memories are all that remain. Five died before they were twenty-two, none from natural causes.
I have spent twenty five years teaching children with learning disabilities and emotional and behavioral challenges. Our five-year-old grand daughter described my job with the simple insight we grown ups lose somewhere along the way: “My grandma teaches sad kids to love school.” Despite the inevitable stress and tears, it has been an amazing career. College offers you required credentials, but the important lessons come from the kids.
No two days, two years, or two students are alike. We laugh often, not at each other, but with each other. We celebrate small victories (I got an a A on my geometry test) and rejoice at big ones (I got my college acceptance letter!). We share, we disagree, we forgive. We are family. During tough times, our classroom has been a safety net, what Jayshawn called “a chill spot, my place of comfortability.” I came back from a week with the flu to a new sign taped on the classroom door, compliments of artistic Brianna: “Home, Sweet Home.” Our classroom was that, especially for the students who didn’t have a real one.
I cherish a bundle of cards and letters postmarked from detention homes and prisons in three states. Not a good indicator of success, some would say, but I’ve learned that being locked up can unlock deep feelings of faith and appreciation. My favorite letter is from Dante, thanking me for teaching him to read and write twenty years before, when he was seven. His adult choices made me sad, but I hold dear the memory of a sweet little boy who crawled up on my lap, put his arms around my neck in a vice grip, and refused to get on the bus on the last day of school. Where there is life there is hope, always.
That last day of school comes this year, and Brian doesn’t visit. Our eyes meet in the hallway. His are brimming. “I think these are happy tears,” he sniffs. “I’m really going to miss high school.” I nod, blinking fast, afraid to talk. Me, too. He starts to walk away, then turns back. “Oh, and Mrs. Haymond, God is going to take care of you. You’ve been busy doing His work for a long time.” A quick hug happens. This, too, is significant. Brian is not a hugger. We part and, again, he leaves me thinking.
God’s work? Come to think of it, there has been some serious and welcome divine intervention in our classroom. Many, many times. Bless you, Brian... and Rebecca, Matthew, Eric, Branden, Mike, Catrina, Clayton, Justin, Josh, David, Chloe, Dason, Kayla, Brooke, Cody, Tyler, James, Roy, Larez, Jess, Amanda, Alex and Chris. My last year was an awesome one and you have been among my greatest teachers. Thanks, guys, for the life lessons, but most of all, thanks for the fun!
In my first classroom year, a dear friend visited to share his gift of song with the little ones just before the holidays. He left with these words “This isn’t just a job, Christine. Teaching these children is a ministry.” It took me years to humbly accept those words as true. Brian’s words, in this last year, close the circle. Coming to school never really felt like work; most days it was closer to heaven on Earth.