Beyond Room 119


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Moments Like This

It’s small group time. I have my five students sitting around my rickety kidney table. One of the legs has part of the base missing, so whoever is talking will be randomly interrupted by a soft bump bump as the table tries to stabilize itself. This is my group of lowest readers. Three are reading at a first grade level, one is at a second grade level, and the fifth speaks about six words of English. She moved to the states less than a month ago from Mexico, and every time she learns a new word, the whole class celebrates with her. It’s pretty touching, actually. Sometimes it seems like they celebrate their classmates more for the sake of making noise and being rambunctious than to actually congratulate them, but with little Mia and her timid smile, hidden by her thick curls, their applause and shouts of “Way to go, Mia!” are always genuine. 

I want this group to really understand the story we are reading – a scintillating tale about Uzzle and Jupe, two monsters who go fishing – so I have them read the tale again, silently this time. Except for one of my boys. I ask him to read it aloud to Mia, pointing to each word as he goes, to help her grasp the language.

I wasn’t sure how it would go. If he would breeze through the tale, barely paying attention to her. If he would become annoyed at having to slow down. If he would even try to help her. This boy has a great heart, but he’s one of my kids that I need to love the most. I say his name at least fifteen times a day. Asking him to be silent. To focus. To pay attention. To sit in his seat. To stand in line. To take his sweatshirt off the floor. You name it, I’ve had to remind him how to do it properly.

So pairing him with Mia was a bit of a gamble. Sometimes those bets fail. Sometimes, they don’t. Because sometimes, just like in Vegas, you win big.

A few minutes later when I looked back over at him and Mia, I wanted to give him the biggest hug possible. Because he wasn’t just reading to Mia. No, he was focused on her. Making sure her eyes were on the page, helping her to follow along. Pausing when he thought she was distracted, and bringing her back to the story.

“Right here, Mia. His stomach grumbled.” He held the little paper book up in front of her and pointed. Mia shined a small smile on him, and he continued.

It took them a little bit longer to finish the story than my other three readers. It meant we didn’t get quite as much done as I wanted.

But at the end of the day, does that matter? No. Because while I am here to teach reading, math, science, and social studies, I’m here to teach something bigger.

Character. Integrity.

Did I have anything to do with what happened? I have no idea. And truthfully, it doesn’t matter. Because moments like this give me hope. They renew my purpose. They remind me that even at the end of yet another crazy day, there is a reason why I am here.

Look, Mia. They’re fishing. 

And they say I’m supposed to be the teacher? Moments like these remind me that in reality, there are twenty-four teachers in my classroom and one student, not the other way around.

 

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Stories

On days like today, I wonder, “What am I doing here?” I stop and say to myself, “Self, why did I think moving across the country, to a state I had never before seen, to an ocean I had never before touched, to a way of life that is radically different from the west, was a good idea?” In short, I question my purpose. Why am I here? How does this chapter fit into the book of my life? How will the next two years or so affect the decades that follow? And then I realized the answer.

Understanding.

One thing that I’m constantly reminded of out here is that everyone has a story. It’s a truth I learned long ago, but somehow during my last year in San Diego, distracted by the sand, the surf, and the sun, I lost sight of this. Everyone has a background, a past, a different perspective. They each bring something unique to the table. And often, it’s something I would never have been able to imagine.

Take Mr. H. Every time I see him in the hallways, his best accessory is his wide smile. A close second is the genuine, “Hey, how are things today?” that he always asks. An older man with laugh lines and crinkly eyes, he clearly has a background that extends far beyond the walls of the school. It wasn’t until I stopped to actually talk with him one day that I learned he wrote poetry. Not quite the normal pastime for a 55 year old man, but then again, who decides what is considered normal?

Or Mr. E, the ever-composed, calm, and confident teacher. If there was an award for always being on top of everything, I would nominate him. The students have an obvious respect for him, I have never seen him raise his voice, and he could teach a university level course on the art of the poker face. Yet beyond that tranquil demeanor is a man who not only spends 40+ hours at a school every week, but uses his free time to coach 6 and 9 year olds football. Why? Because he was asked to a few years ago, and it’s become part of him. He teaches his players that school comes first and football is a privilege, and in doing so, he teaches them not only about a sport he loves, but about how to succeed in life.

Even my students have such backgrounds. Jamaree. Shaikim. Matthew. Sah’niya. There are such detailed, colorful, often crazy, sometimes fun, and occasionally heartrending pasts that make each of them who they are today. They have faced so much and have grown in ways that many of us never had to imagine as nine year-olds. Each of them has so much beneath the surface of their shining faces, their hands sticky from this morning’s syrup, and shoes scuffed from recess the previous day. Is it possible to truly know any one of them without understanding where they come from? Definitely not.

The gift of understanding must be cultivated and carefully tended. It isn’t the sand reeds of the Atlantic that, once sown, takes root and flourishes. It’s more akin to a rose – once planted, it needs constant attention to flourish. And just as a rose has a dangerous beauty, so too does understanding. It is a gift that brings perspective and joy, but it can also bring pain, as you realize what a person has endured to become who they are at this moment.

Just as Emerson once said, “Every man I meet is my superior in some way. In that, I learn from him.” I am just one person. One individual, in a world of over six billion humans. That makes me one drop in the bucket, one crayon in the box, one star in the sky. Whatever metaphor you’d like to use, the core message remains: I am but one. Every single person here is better than me, stronger than me, smarter than me, wiser than me. My goal here is to learn from them. To learn not just what that person is – a teacher, instructional assistant, student, whatever – but to discover WHO they are. To understand what motivates them. Why they choose to get up in the morning. Why they are here.

My goal then for this year, is not to teach. Will I teach? Yes. Will I pour all my efforts and my entire heart into it to ensure that these students learn what they need to in order to succeed next year and beyond? Absolutely. Is that my end goal?

Absolutely not.

This year, my goal is to understand. To listen to these 24 unique stores. To listen, and to have the wisdom and compassion to respond. And through careful attention and intentional listening, to help each child become the author of their own life. To take charge and to write the next chapter in their own wonderfully open book of life.

Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of the year. Tomorrow, it begins.

All right, Room 119. Let’s do this.


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The Beginning (or just a continuation?)

Growing up, some kids dream about donning the white coat of a doctor, the space suit of an astronaut, the camo of the military, the leotard of a dancer. Others lined up well-loved stuffed animals on their beds and taught them, pretending to be at the front of a classroom. Still others stood under the blazing sun, sweat making their hair drip, practicing lay-up after lay-up, preparing for a life in the NBA.

Not me.

I always loved to read. One of my earliest memories is lugging my little neon blue and pink suitcase to the public library every two or three weeks and fill it up with new treasures. As I scoured the shelves for new books, with my my dusty brown hair thrown back into a ponytail, wearing whatever I found first without thinking about how the different pieces fit together, my little face gleamed.  As I explored every single aisle in the children’s section, these visits could take upwards of an hour or more, depending on the patience of whichever parent had earned library duty that time.

Those books taught me to imagine. To travel. To dream. To believe.

I loved the power that a string of words can have. One word may be powerless, but if you string the right ones together in the right way, you can create magic.

And because I experienced such magic, my dream of becoming an author was born. I began writing. Though the stories from my childhood would hardly be contenders for the Newbery Medal – stories describing life in Dogland, finding secret treasures, a day in the life of a mosquito, discovering my dog in the Puppy Penthouse at the North Pole, just to name a few – they brought me energy, excitement. They fueled my dream.

And then, somehow along the way, I stopped writing. My dream changed, as dreams do. I became busy with life, and writing fell by the wayside. Whenever I took the time to return to it, I felt the same passion and exuberance that the kid with the obnoxious suitcase did.

Because of that feeling, I decided to start this new project. I’ve been a journal writer, on and off, for most of my life, but I’m ready to step it up a bit. As I begin my new blog, I’m really just continuing what I did as a six year old, albeit without the grammatical errors and funky handwriting. I don’t know if I can measure up to my stories about Dogland, but I owe it to myself – both to my little self and my current self – to try.