I’d arrived early last Wednesday and was so glad I had. Almost as soon as I sat down in the quiet classroom I heard people rolling their knuckles over the door. Tenth graders. Two of them.
They’re not really my business (I’m involved with 2nd and 3rd period Eleventh grade), but I stood up anyway to greet them.
“Good morning!” they beamed, “Can we put our stuff down?” I forgot that this was something kids did. I forgot that this was something I did when I was younger, and I’d forgotten that it was a sacred time—even if it only lasted for a few seconds—to greet my teacher and have my teacher greet me.
“Yes, of course! But you have to tell me your names first,” I smiled back at them. It’s my goal to learn everybody’s name who comes into my classroom, regardless if they’re going to be my class next semester. I’m doing pretty well so far.
T. and F. entered.
“Ugh, my shoulders are killing me!” F cried, and slumped her book-bag down onto her desk.
“Why?” I asked. “Have you been lifting weights?” I should have connected the obvious, but I didn’t.
“No,” she seemed perplexed. After some strife-ridden seconds of silent misunderstanding, I got it.
“Oh, your backpack’s too heavy, that’s why,” I corrected. “You’ve been lifting academic weights!”
“Yes!” She giggled, humoring my nerdy attempt to save our conversation.
To T. she said, “Why don’t you put yours down so we can go!”
He looked surprised, then laughed. “Oh, I forget I’m even wearing this sometimes!”
As he dumped off his things I realized that these were more words and more smiles than I’d ever seen or heard from either them. How lucky I was to see and hear. No—not lucky. Available. I’d opened up the door for them.
F. turned to me, “Your name’s Miss ___, right?” She was close.
“Ms. ___, yes,” I corrected.
“Well, nice to meet you, Ms. ___” she exclaimed and swiftly slid me into a hug.
“Oh!” I was shocked. “Nice to meet you too,” I said, awkward returning the hug in a polite but proper way. The kind that gives a brief pat of acknowledgement but nothing more.
I’m teaching because I want to touch the future in a meaningful way; but as any person with common sense (and yesterday’s sexual harassment guest lecturer) could tell you, there’s a very specific and appropriate way to touch—and not to touch—the future.
Yet what I’ve read and what I’ve heard about students is quickly floating to the surface in my classroom: students will ask for my attention in many ways and will display their need for it with just as much variety. As F. ran out the door calling, “We’ll see you in a little bit,” over her temporarily unburdened shoulders, I was left wondering, if she was one of those needy students? And if so, what exactly was her need? To give hugs? To show emotion? To receive affirmation? To be seen as a human?
Would that classify as any extra kind of need? Somehow, in the midst of our sterile culture, it did.
The important thing to figure out was how to meet her needs while also meeting my own. I can’t hug students. [Well, I can but I won’t because a few bad apples ruined human affection for everybody else. (Though speaking of apples, I’d like to reinstate that schoolhouse student-to-teacher-delivery habit again.)] It’s a balancing act, this tightrope teaching.
In the weeks leading up to my placement I tried to prepare myself as best as I could. I anticipated rottenness: the meanness, the sulkiness, and the problems adolescents would undoubtedly bring with them to school. I tried to get ready for lockdowns and classroom management.
But you know what? There was one major thing I wasn’t ready for. One thing which I now consider to be a huge oversight: I wasn’t ready for kindness.
This is the Stone Ground Story of an early morning and opened door.