What I Really Wanted To Do

Sometimes I’m struck by the number of roles I play as a teacher that have nothing to do with teaching English. Earlier this year I received an email from the mother of a boy in my home room: “Please keep an eye on Cody,” she wrote. “We had to put his dog down last night and he’s very upset.” My heart broke for him, and I felt the tears in my throat, but it was time to open my door to the new day so I grabbed my biggest smile and welcomed in my home room kids.

How am I supposed to ” keep an eye” on Cody when I have 119 other students to teach, keep focused and amused, and in line during one school day? I had five classes to teach, a team meeting, and a period to get ready for the next day – and none of those times were available for grief.

What I really wanted to do was take Cody outside and hang out under a big old tree with him.  We could just sit and he could tell me about his dog, how she had been there when he was born, how she slept with him every night, curled up against his back like a warm wall of pure, unmitigated adoration. He would tell me, his adolescent voice finally cracking, that she was always there waiting at the end of the driveway when he came home from school, her tail beating the air and her feet unable to hold the ground. And he would tell me, the tears falling in a torrent to the soft grass, that he didn’t think he could take it without Bear in his life.

Instead, I called his name for attendance and  checked to see how he was holding up.  He was pale and the circles under his eyes a dark purple, but Bobby, God bless him, was showing Cody something under the desk (Bobby doesn’t know that I know what he likes to draw) and they were both snorting in quiet laughter.

Later, I would take Cody aside and ask how he was doing.  I would tell him how terribly sorry I was and I would try, with all my might, not to let tears fill my eyes, but not succeed.  And he would say he was doing okay, thanks, avoiding my eyes as he merged into the writhing throng of 7th graders who make weird noises and crash into each other and sometimes even  notice when a friend is sad.

I watched him go, part of the whole crazy scene, and my heart eased. Maybe that’s what he needed more than me and the big old tree.

Parent-Teacher Conferences Week

It’s Saturday morning and the snow is coming down heavily.  I can’t go out today and I’m glad.  This past week is one that I consider to be the hardest week of the school year.  For three days, we teach all morning, have a quick lunch, and launch into an afternoon of one ten-minute parent meeting after another.

I used to be so nervous, even afraid, of these conferences in my first few years of teaching.  What if a parent asked me a question and I didn’t know the answer?  What if a parent challenged me about my teaching and I found out I was a terrible teacher?  What if they knew I was a fraud,  that I did not yet know how to diagram sentences, or the difference between a clause and a phrase?And there were just enough of those meetings to keep me afraid.  Several of them stick out in my mind:

The Pointer:  This mother held her arm out straight, her finger pointing at my face.  “My son is not being challenged,” she bellowed, “and that is your responsibility as his English teacher.”  I was struck dumb, near tears, when my blessed teammate spoke up:  “I’m afraid we’re out of time, Mrs. Stinkfinger (names have been changed to avoid further finger-pointing),” she said firmly, standing up and walking to the door.

The Mother Of the Photo-Incident:  Five months after school pictures had been handed out, this mother was still furious at me because, as I handed her son’s school picture to him, I mentioned, “Look at that smile!”  I, of course, meant that he had a huge happy smile that I thought was wonderful, but it turned into what the mother called “The Photo-Incident.”  Apparently I should have known that he had always been embarrassed by his smile, mortified even, and now I had ruined his seventh-grade year by pointing it out – IN FRONT OF THE WHOLE HOMEROOM!  By the time January conferences  came along and she mentioned it once again, I just nodded tiredly and kept quiet, counting the months until ENORMOUS-SMILE boy would be my student no more.

The “Will My Amazing Twins Be Placed in Advanced English Next Year?” incident:  I taught eighth grade my very first year of teaching, and I swear, despite my Master’s Degree, despite being a nationally published author, avid reader and lover of words, I KNEW NOTHING.  I had no guidance that first year, in teaching English anyway, and nobody had told me that we would be placing our students in the appropriate English and Math classes for their freshman years.  I literally had no idea what the parents were talking about, and I was more embarrassed than when I folded the men’s underwear wrong at K-Mart in my first job as a teenager.

This past week wasn’t bad at all, for the most part.  The parents were almost all kind and caring and grateful to our team, and our team of 5 worked together as though we’d been a team for years, even though we have a teacher who is brand new this year.  (More about Kate soon – she is wonderful.) We started Wednesday at 11:30.  At 11:45, the vice-principal came in, and sat to the side, note-pad in hand.  Though she introduced herself to the parents, she was obviously doing official observations on some of us – me.  The thing is, I was dressed as Superwoman… It had been wacky sock day and I just happened to have a brand-new pair of Superwoman socks.  I decided to wear shirts that accentuated the socks, and then I remembered the red, sparkly cape in my dress-up bin and put that on, too.  The kids loved it, and what made it really worthwhile was seeing a couple of always grumpy and glum kids trying to hide their smiles.

Back to the conferences – The VP is surreptitiously watching me and writing down every word I say to the mother across from me.  I’ve learned  to compile a written record for each student of his oral reading skills, his writing strengths and weaknesses, his behavior, and his participation, so I’m much more prepared and confident.  Suddenly, though, the mother is telling us that they will be putting their ten-year-old Great Dane down in 45 minutes.  She starts crying, and so do I. I can hardly stop.  I’m heartbroken  for her and  her sweet daughter.  Even after she leaves, I’m sitting  there in my Superwoman  cape with tears running down my face.  The Vice Principal is still taking notes, and I can only imagine what she’s writing.

The rest of the conferences were uneventful – we gave our spiels and most parents left smiling.  I love seeing my students’ faces reflected, sometimes almost mirrored, in their  parents.  I love understanding my students so much better after experiencing parents who are tense and rigid about grades (“Why is my  daughter so anxious?”), or parents who are so full of love and pride for a son who struggles but always tries his best. I now understand the silence of a lovely girl after her father came in and literally bragged about himself for the entire ten minutes, never asking about his daughter’s accomplishments.

Next week will be a “normal” week, I hope.  I’m looking forward to being  with  my students.  We’re going to diagram prepositional phrases.

The Cookie Fairy and more

January 19, 2015

Many years ago, one of my favorite students gave me a gift of a room spray that smells like vanilla.  In general, I hate fake smells.  Yankee Candle literally makes me sick, and Bath and Body products all have the same sickly odor underneath the supposed individual “scents”.  But this spray truly smells delicious.  Last year, I started spraying it, just a little, around the classroom before the students came in.  When my homeroom kids stumbled and grumbled and slouched their ways into the room one Monday morning, their eyes opened wide and they started to sniff like my dog on a summer afternoon at the pond.

“I smell cookies!”

“ What’s that marshmallow smell?” another asked, closing her eyes and breathing slowly in.

“Ohhhhh, it smells so good in here, Ms. Babs,” Bobby sighed.  “What is that?”

“I guess the Cookie Fairy came again last night,” I said, smiling.  “She comes a lot, but she never leaves cookies.  I wish she would.”

What I absolutely adore about 7th graders is they just accept this.  I have no misconceptions that they totally believe me or anything, but they are very much like me in some ways:  they want to believe, so why not?

January 16, 2015

Yesterday we finished reading the painful last chapter of The Boy In the Striped Pajamas.  I had to read it five times.  Five times I had to think of random boring objects (socks, tea, chicken food…) as quick as I could so I didn’t start crying in front of the class.  If I do start, I just can’t stop, and the kids don’t need that.  Seeing a teacher cry is both tantalizing and terrifying to a 12 year old.  I really think they never see me the same way.

I know this from several mortifying experiences through the years.  The first time, I had assigned a short essay about a pet, and I offered to share mine.  I had written about Hickety-Pickety, my favorite chicken.  She was the one who would actually stand on the back steps, her head cocked to look up at the window for me, waiting for me to come out.  She would follow me across the yard, singing soft songs of delicious bugs and of her beautiful blue-green eggs – a little feathered peaceful friend. She was beautiful, too:  fawn and white feathers, a mostly white head, and green legs.  But one late afternoon just before I wrote about her, I found her feathers in the yard and knew the fox had taken her.

I thought I was all right about it – after all, she was just a chicken and we had fifteen others, but as I read to my class my voice suddenly broke, and before I knew it I was doing the ugly-cry (as Oprah called it), where my face was all scrunched up.  I was mortified, but I couldn’t stop.  A kind girl who I’ve never forgotten came up and wrapped me in a hug.  “I’m sorry, Ms. Babs,” she whispered.  The others, however, were wide-eyed and miserable, not knowing what they were supposed to do.

Then there was Freak the Mighty, by Rodman Philbrick, one of my very favorite books ever to teach (the administration decided it was not “rigorous enough” and took it away in favor of thematic books…).  The ending is very sad in the book, but somehow hopeful.  The movie’s end, however, with the music and the character’s ravaged grief, almost brings me to my knees.  Every year I would show it to the students after we finished the book.  I tried to leave the room for a supposed bathroom break during the hardest part, but one year we all watched it together in the auditorium.  I was sitting behind the students, tears running down my face, when someone noticed.  Suddenly they all turned to watch me instead of the movie, whispers of “Ms. Babs is crying!” like wind in pines filling the whole enormous space.

So I’ve learned, for the most part, to be able to shut a door to enormous sorrow when I’m teaching.  Yesterday I held it together all day, but my wonderful aide, Mr. T, did not.  He read the last chapter for me in his magnificent rich voice, and actually stopped for a minute before going on, lifting his glasses to wipe his eyes.  I don’t think the kids noticed, but I did, and I loved him for it.

I MUST BE A SAINT

My blog of teaching 7th grade English

INTRODUCTION: Invariably, when I tell a stranger that I teach 7th grade, their eyes widen in horror and they tell me they can’t think of anything worse.  “You must be a saint!” they exclaim.

I disagree.  It’s pretty simple, really – I’m greedy for their energy and joy and enthusiasm for life.  Every single day at least one student, but usually more, validate me as a human being and as a teacher.  Because of my students, I know I matter in this world.

Denouement

“What are you doing, Viktor?” I asked, curiously.

“Trying to remember how to spell ‘denouement,” he said, butchering the word. He hunched over his desk, pushing his smeared glasses up with two fingers.

“Come up here for a minute,” I said quietly, trying not to disturb the rest of my home room kids, who were, for once, all working hard or reading during the half hour Flex period before lunch.  Victor stood up, his chair scraping, and trundled over.

“Yes, Ms. Babs?” he said politely.

I grabbed a scrap of paper and wrote “de”.  “That’s how it starts, right?”

“Right.” He looked puzzled.

I left a blank spot and wrote, “ment.” “And that’s how it ends.”

He nodded. “Yup.”

“So what we have left is the hard part: ‘noue’.  He nodded.  “Let’s make up a silly little sentence with those letters… How about ‘Never order ugly eggs.’  See how we made a sentence using the four letters to start each word?”

Viktor nodded enthusiastically.

“So now, during the test when you want to spell ‘denouement,’ you can write the easy beginning, then either tell yourself the silly sentence or write it in the margin and use the four first letters, and then add the easy ending!”

“That’s so cool,” Viktor whispered, a huge grin lighting up his face. I handed him the paper and he went back to his desk to practice, still grinning.   The next day he aced the test and earned the 5 points extra credit for knowing and being able to spell the other word for the resolution of a novel.

One student out of 119. One tiny skill taught. But those five minutes were some of the most precious that day.  To see a student who struggles, but always tries so hard and has such a great attitude succeed and feel confident is enough to remind me- THIS is why I teach.