These Little Child-People

This weekend I watched The Ron Clark Story on t.v.  Ron Clark is a real person who moved from North Carolina to New York, and taught 6th grade in Harlem.  I really like that movie, fictionalized though it might be.  I don’t suppose I love it as much as some other movies, but I enjoy the portrayal of an elementary teacher’s job.  And Matthew Perry is always one of my favorites.  But there is one, single, solitary scene that makes me cry.  In the very first scene of the movie, Mr. Clark is in the school hallway back in North Carolina, and he sees a boy, probably around 2nd grade, standing in a garbage can, facing the wall.  He asks what’s going on, and the boy says, “Teacher says I can’t learn, so I should go out with the trash.”  What Mr. Clark does next is very sweet, but it’s too late, the boy’s single sentence has done it, I’m sobbing.  I wonder what happens to the boy for the rest of the day, and the rest of the year, and who he is five years later.  Even though he’s probably fictitious.  How did that experience affect him?  Did he ever find someone to believe in him?  Did he ever come to believe that he could succeed?

It scares the crap out of me, how much influence I might have over what a child thinks of himself.  I see in that fictitious, nameless boy every single one of my students, past and present.  Something about the undoubting trust.  The way he says what his teacher said…not defensive, just resigned.  Teacher said it, so it must be true.  I have experienced moments of undoubting trust from every student, and from most of my students, I see it all of the time.  That undoubting trust scares me.  Lots of little kids (and some big kids, too, I think) see their teachers as superheroes, infallible experts about everything, adults to whom they can turn in times of trouble and in times of celebration.  My previous students come visit me and tell me about their first boyfriends, my little students ask me how a doctor will get the baby out of Mommy’s tummy.  They all trust that whatever I say will be exactly what they need to know.

I don’t deserve it.  I’m no superhero.

I have never told a child to stand in the garbage can, but have I ever said something in a moment of frustration that gave a child that same message?  I don’t know.  I can’t remember.  I hope not.  It scares me that I might, in a moment of anger, purpose to hurt a child’s feelings.  It scares me that a child might watch me to see how to act, what to believe about himself, what to think about the world.  This job…it is impossible.  I’m not sure I know what success looks like anymore.  Besides which, it’s just my job.  It’s how I pay the bills.  It makes me a little crazy to be this engaged with work stuff, 24/7.  I’d rather be able to mostly leave it there.  But it’s the children…they get under my skin.  I care about them. 

Most jobs could be categorized as “people jobs” or “money jobs,” and teaching is definitely a people job.  (People jobs=taking care of someone in some way.  Money jobs=earning a profit for your employer.  Some jobs could fit in both categories, but I think usually the main objective of the job is either one or the other.)  Sometimes I wish I had a money job, so that I didn’t care so much, but the thing is, a money job wouldn’t make me care enough to want to do a good job.

I don’t agree when people say things like, “They’re lucky to have you.”  I’m not the only good teacher in the world, I’m no groundbreaker or anything.  I’m just here to do a good job.  If I weren’t here, someone else would be.  But, these kids have been assigned to my class this year.  It’s more like, they’re stuck with me!  They deserve for me to be a good teacher, in this situation.

Last weekend’s “rant” was very idealistic.  If the world worked the way I think it should…  And I’m not here to sugarcoat the challenges that are in front of me this year, or to ignore them.  This is going to be hard.  No doubt about it.  This is going to be, most likely, my toughest year so far.  I wish I had my own classroom, instead of sharing with another first grade class.  If I have to coteach, I wish I could work with someone who is a better match with me, teaching-style-wise.  I wish my classroom had windows.  I wish my kids all had parents who care about their kid’s health and happiness.  I wish I never had to call DHS, or have a parent-teacher conference with someone who is high, or watch a scared four-year-old get picked up from school by a police officer and a social worker at 7:00 p.m. on a Friday night because we can’t get ahold of anyone.  (Did all that really happen?  Yes, all of it.  I know lots of teachers who have much more shocking stories to tell, though, trust me.)   I wish, I wish, I wish…

But I want to focus on doing what’s best for the kids within the limits of this situation.  And I want to make sure nobody in my classroom feels they deserve to be thrown out with the trash.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mom
    Aug 23, 2009 @ 19:19:22

    Hang in there. Because you care, you will make fewer mistakes than someone who doesn’t care as much. Besides, I believe in you and so does God.


  2. Tara
    Aug 23, 2009 @ 19:20:45

    I too love the Ron Clark story. He came to OPS as a guest speaker 4 or 5 years ago and my staff got to meet him and hear him up close. Amazing!


  3. Doris Jacobs
    Aug 24, 2009 @ 08:52:11

    I experienced the “she can’t learn” line. I just prayed that it was never said to Jessica. At least I heard it out of her hearing but that was the day she was no longer in that person’s special education class. I know the vast majority of teachers have been more like you but that one line can really make a person sceptical.


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