The first week of school is over! I don’t even want to count how many there are to go. Without fail, these first few days are always harrowing. Nobody knows where they are supposed to be and when. Especially teachers. New schedules, new bell and lunch times, new duties. But most of all, new students!
I teach a lot of freshmen and they are always my “babies”, whether they know it or not. They come in all tiny and quiet and afraid. But before long, they’ll be driving me crazy with all the stories and talking! My school culture amongst the teachers and employees is not so great this year, so I am trying really hard to stay away from the negativity. I took another outlook and was determined to be positive in my classes, to make those babies feel like they belonged and that we are going to have a wonderful year. But teaching is a balancing act. You’ve heard the First Commandment of Teaching; Don’t Smile Till Christmas. Still, I tried to be gentle. I’ve been teaching in the same school long enough that the older students know me and they know how I am in class. That I’m not actually mean or too strict, that I am patient, but that I don’t tolerate laziness or outrageously stupid behavior.
Somehow, the freshmen knew this before they even got to my room! I overheard them telling each other so in the hallway. Who told these kids I’m nice?! It’s okay, though. They seem pretty docile. Nobody threw anything or caused me problems of any kind in the first three days. I thanked God that my huge classes of 35 children appear to have at least some kind of sense.
Throughout the week, my heartstrings were tugged. I felt tears welling up on several occasions, both in pride and in shame. Emotions were high. I guess you could say it was a cathartic couple of days.
Firstly, we had Freshman Orientation one day before school began. Several departments and organizations were “voluntold” to present to about one hundred new students and parents. In an effort to work smarter, not harder, I called in some senior members of Art Club so I wouldn’t have to talk. They made me proud. But what really got me was what two students did afterward. It was the afternoon and we had Open House later, so our rooms had to be clean and relatively ready to receive families at 2. These kids came to my room and asked if they could do some art. It was 12:00.
One wanted to paint and the other wanted to make a print, both things are messy and require getting all the supplies out and then cleaning them up after. And I had just cleaned the tables and I did not have time to clean up after them. So I’m sitting there thinking how nice and clean my room is and I’m tempted to say no. But they’re begging me with their eyes and promising to clean up and I just couldn’t crush their dreams. These kids arrived at school a day early with a request to do art! Who am I to tell them no?
What other subject inspires students so much that they actually want to study it before school starts? If they showed up in the Math room requesting early algebra homework, that would be on the news! It’s unheard of. I seriously almost cried when they cleaned everything up without my asking them and thanked me and said, “see you tomorrow”. It is in these moments, as small as they may seem, that I am proud to be an Art teacher.
But there was another moment in the week that wasn’t so good. I was on morning duty with an assistant principal and some other teachers. We are still trying to learn the rules of where students can and can’t go and all that. This girl, Fran, walked up to me with a question. Fran would like to be in my AP Art History class, but her schedule wasn’t correct. This is not a surprise. It’s one of those other things that are getting sorted out for the first week. So let me tell you about Fran.
This child failed my Art 1 class last year. She failed because she was absent for the exam due to some family trip or something. She never made it up. In addition, she missed an inordinate amount of school days because of suspensions and alternative school. In case you don’t know, alternative school is where the BAD children go when they get in really big trouble. It’s just another school with extremely strict rules. Fran was moved there for a semester because of fighting. She has a temper.
When she came back, I found out that this child is the most eloquent poet in the entire school. She writes, she can paint, she is creative. And she wants to share that with the world. Yes, she is dramatic. Her home life is sometimes a mess. She was raised to be combative and not back down to anyone. She once told me a story about her entire family (sisters, mom, aunt) fist fighting another family in the front yard until the cops came.
But she wanted AP Art History so badly that she fought for it in guidance. She bothered me and pushed me (figuratively) and made me promise to do my best to get the class at the school. Fran was one of the major reasons I struggled all summer to be able to teach this class.
But it wasn’t on her schedule.
Often, those who assign AP classes only do so to those children they think will succeed. Fran’s GPA is abysmal, something like a 1.3. So even though she had fought and I had recommended and requested her, she didn’t get the class. It was the 3rd day of school and Fran was not done fighting yet. She was going to guidance to ask one more time to get into that class. On that morning, she politely approached me and asked if she could walk around the front of the building and go in that door.
Not knowing the new rules, Fran and I turned to the principal. I asked, “hey, can she go in this way?”
This man, this over six feet tall and almost as wide man, immediately began to scream at Fran. He accused her of trying to sneak off somewhere she did not belong and hang out with her buddies. He straight-up told her she was attempting to do something wrong. Then, he turned to me and said, “She’s playing you.”
I was ready to talk back, with my little five-foot-five self. But I hesitated and in my shocked silence, Fran said to me, “Its ok, I’ll do it later. Really. Don’t worry about it.” And she went away in the proper direction. The principal refused to hear what I had to say, continuing to rant about these terrible and tricky children.
What in the world had just happened? I wanted to tell him that I am not as stupid as I look. I know Fran has a checkered past. I also know that she is trying to do better. So much that she had inspired me to be a better teacher! And here is this guy, only seeing her mistakes. Not seeing her tremendous potential. Not seeing that she is making a huge effort to become the beautiful young lady she is meant to be.
And its sad, this perspective. It upset me to see this administrator push down a young person who was trying to rise up to be something better.
Only thirty minutes later, Fran was in my AP Art History class! I was so excited, I could have peed my pants. Then, as if to affirm that everything was okay, she volunteered to read a short writing assignment in front of the whole class. And it was beautiful. I couldn’t have written anything more poetic. She fought to be there, then immediately proved that she belonged.
I will not forget this incident. I am tempted to wait until Fran scores the highest in the class on the exam and walk into that man’s office, slap the report down on the table, and remind him of exactly what happened. We’ll see if I still feel like it next year.
As teachers, we interact with so many different kinds of students. We know our children better than anyone else in the school sometimes. And we need to believe in their ability to do great things. We need to give them chances to show their potential, to grow and to learn. Not only the basics of our curriculum, but also as people. Everyone makes mistakes in life. I certainly did. You did. That principal did. That doesn’t mean we cannot succeed. All Fran needed was a chance to be in that advanced class.
So give your kids a chance! Let them prove to you that they have something valuable to say, to give, to express. Just allow them to show you. More often than not, you are the vital ingredient to changing their lives. As this event has shown me, if you don’t help some students in their fight to be better, no one else will.