I have said that I love shoes, as recently as this week. I always joke with my students that I like their shoes and ask if we can trade. They always say no, until I asked Derek. He said yes, and he was serious. I kicked off my shoes and he his. They were a perfect fit. He paraded in front of his class proclaiming that “heels are no big deal.” I looked at him in awe, the ONLY student to ever want to play along. I told him, the kid who is always in trouble, that he was the coolest kid I had ever known. I told him in front of his whole class, and I meant it too.
A not-so-secret strategy of decent writing and wordsmithing is a thesaurus. I usually use one to find a better word for an idea, but today I need to understand a word compared to its peers not its definition.
“Antique” is what Derek affectionately called me today. It stung the tiniest bit as I reflected on my grandmother’s curios in my home. Those were antiques to me and of course old. But they are also memorable treasures.
Perhaps, another teacher would have lectured, acted offended, or even punished a child for calling an adult an antique. I can already imagine the etiquette lesson that could ensue maybe accompanied with a side of guilt trip. I definitely guilt trip my students. I am not above having character defects that I use as assets. The key is timing.
I put on quite the guilt trippy show to a group of 4th graders just yesterday. My “antique” caller was absent. It was his birthday so I hoped that he was having a great time somewhere else. But while he was gone his class had filled the void of being hateful to each other.
So I gave the following approximated speech to them in a teacher voice – the kind where everyone freezes dead in mid movement and stares – kind of teacher voice.
“When you wake up in the morning you have two choices. You are either going to choose fear or love. If you choose fear then you will most likely have a day full of anger, frustration, or sadness. When you choose love you will most likely have a day full of joy, happiness, and kindness. Everyday after school I go home to my mom who has cancer. If I choose fear, what do you think I am scared of?”
A kid calls out ‘that your mom will die.’
“That’s right,” I continue. “And if I choose fear then I will spend my day angry at you or mean or yelling, and then I would not be able to love you or love what I do. But everyday when I wake up I tell myself that I choose love, and I come here. And I love all of you from the bottom of my heart. And everyday I hope that I will get one more day with my mom, that when I go home I will find her happy to see me and feeling good. Because you see at the end of her life the only thing that she has that belongs to her is the love that is in her heart. She can’t take her gold rings or her medals with her to where she is going next, and neither can any of you. All you have is the love in your heart. So be kind to each other.”
Derek, the birthday boy, was back at school today. So when I went to his classroom he asked if he could have lunch with me. We have lunch together often. He gets to work on art projects with me and his friends earn recess because he isn’t loud and silly in the cafeteria. Often, his exuberance of being unable to contain his excitement for life loses recess for all of his peers. Shhhhhh.
He missed what I told his class, but he already knew. He already knows that I may need him more than he needs me. He already knows that my life is stressful, and I need the laughter he provides me. We both often laugh until we cry about the silliest of things. Immaturity is a job requirement of any good teacher. Pure joy turned to laughter is one of my most favorite parts of being a spirit trapped in a human body.
I love him with every beat of my heart. I worry about his future. He is misunderstood and charismatic. He has all of the tools to be amazing or terrible. He is one of the most gifted students that I have every worked with, and my M.Ed. is in gifted education. The odds of him being amazing are stacked against him. If you are gifted, you are very likely to drop out of high school from lack of being understood even though you probably will never be identified because you are a minority. And as a minority, the privately run prison system is counting on you messing up, snapping.
When my mom, a retired educator of over 50 years, came to school a few of weeks ago, she met Derek. She already knew the story about the shoes. When we saw him sitting outside working on a project, I called to him telling him that I was going to introduce him to my mom. He immediately stood up and said, “I knew it! Y’all look alike.” He walked toward her and put his hand out to introduce himself.
Two days letter he got a letter from my mom and at the bottom it said, “For Derek. . . may he learn to walk in another’s shoes – not just for fun, but for understanding, help, and hope.”
She taught me well because even though I miss my target and most of the shoes that I try on don’t fit, Derek’s did. And for a moment we created a bond that only a teacher and student can have. He will be in my heart forever. He will have my love forever. He will forever have my prayers.
Antiques are treasures that I love admiring. I hope Derek feels the same way about me. I will appreciate his round-about compliments that keep him coming to see me at lunch instead of hanging out with his friends, whatever the reason. We will continue to laugh and talk about growing pains.
If I woke up in the morning and chose fear then I would never have the capacity to love my students. My job is so much bigger than teaching them math or reading. My job is to teach them love.