Coming to the top of the stairs I see Charlotte sitting on the floor by her locker, knees tucked up, book settled there. I say, “Good morning!” and she looks up, quiet smile on her face. “Good morning.” I smile back and move along into my classroom. The bell rings soon enough and, along with a half dozen sixteen years olds, Char comes in and approaches my computer station at the front of the room where I’m perched for at least 50% of my working day. “Can I talk to you?” “Of course. Here? Out in the hall?” She chooses the hall, and once all the kids have sorted themselves into classrooms she begins. She found lice in her hair last week. I nod. And she’s done all the treatments. I nod again. And this morning she …. she falters. “I …. I sort of had this itch right here….” and points above her left ear. She thinks the lice have returned. I smile. “So what would you like to do next?” I ask. She doesn’t know. Without worrying about the kids in the room – it’s 8:55 am – they’ll nap while they wait – she and I head down to the office to find out what the school policy is about kids who’ve found lice – should they be attending class? I’m sure they shouldn’t but I don’t want to just send her away. We get there and I’m thrilled! The school social worker and one of the mentors hired to work with kids on personal issues are both standing in the office! Double Bingo! They, of course, know exactly what to do. The two of them get her set up with great products that they use when they contract lice and she’s starting to smile again. The principal walks in: “What’s going on? Can I help?” And I leave Char to these three women. She will be fine.
Sherry fell down the stairs yesterday – the outdoor stairs, made of concrete. She told the story: she kinda slipped and fell backwards and landed sorta on her back and kinda on her head. Ms A and I had tried to convince her to go see the doctor. She laughed. “No! I’ll be okay.” We watched her – usually spry and lithe and limber – she sort of inched away, hand on her hip. This morning though, she could barely sit. She gingerly lowered herself into her desk, and slouched to avoid pressure points, and braced her frame against the front legs of her desk, propping herself in there. I asked my assistant, Ms R, to take her out for a walk and get her caught up on what she’d missed recently, thinking she’d be more comfortable walking in the halls than sitting here. When they returned, maybe a half hour later, Sherry was still in obvious pain. I told her she would stay after class and we’d chat. She stayed. We chatted. “You should see a doctor.” “I’m afraid of doctors.” “You’re in pain.” “I’ll be okay.” “But what if your injury doesn’t heal on its own? You don’t even really know if you’ve done any damage.” She smiled all gentle and kind, looking at me, waiting for me to be done being concerned. And then she refused. No luck. I watched her limp out, all crooked and achy. The girl needed Advil but I’m not allowed to administer any medications.
I’m running down the hallway to the computer lab where the printer is, hopefully, spewing forth my handouts for the next class. I glance up and there’s Cindy. I get a little warm spot in my heart just seeing her. I don’t teach her this year and that makes me a little sad. Spunky, and tart, and full of that adolescent brand of self-confidence that makes her believe she can handle anything if she just throws enough emotion at it. She is snuggled up to someone. Someone with a lot of bulk – is that a student? I glance again. I sigh. It’s her former boyfriend, the one she and I chatted about so many times when they broke up, so many times last year! He’s been through the wringer. And through the court system. I’m surprised he’s back with the charges laid against him. Perhaps he’s being held off until he can be tried in adult court. He’s what I would call a sweet boy. I have fond memories of him – we smiled and joked and shared some good fun. A week or so after his incident I saw him out on the street. He saw me and waved, smiled. I waved back, heart hurting. We’d received a memo about a week ago, maybe two, that he was returning to our school to pick up a few credits. I was glad. I don’t have time to chat with them. They’re not good together – fire and ice – but apparently they can’t stay apart. I’m not sure how I feel about this.
Over the lunch “hour” (Ha! Hour! That’s a good one!) I sit in the staffroom for twenty minutes throwing left-over turkey soup into my gullet, barely tasting it. The clock is running and the new president of our local union is here on an initial visit to see the school and listen to teachers. There are three or four of us in there, talking about the new registration system the government is implementing which requires us to register every year in order to have our teaching certificates verified. Or something like that. It’s still all a little unclear. “But we have to enter our certificate number every year when we fill in those educator profiles online for the government. Why don’t they just add a line on that form?” The president doesn’t know; that makes sense to all of us. We talk about how little time there is in a school day and how everyone feels that every year there’s more to do. But time is up and I hastily rinse my dishes, thank the new guy for coming out, and dash out the door.
Running back to my classroom after lunch, I’m about to sprint up the stairs when I stop and back up about six feet. There, curled into a ball in the corner, is a large boy. His clothes are bunched together and there is no skin showing beyond the side of his face – he looks like a heap of laundry. I look around. No one. “Are you okay?” He doesn’t move. I step closer and ask again. Some girls come out of no where just when he looks up. One of them says, “He looks pretty sad to me.” And he does look sad. Like he’s been crying pretty hard. I tilt my head and ask a little more softly. “Hey. Are you okay?” He nods, glasses all skewed on his face. I’m not convinced. His eyes are red rimmed and watery. I’m trying to place him – he looks familiar, until he fakes a smile. Nope. Not familiar. Who is this guy? “Are you sure? Can I help?” He makes eye contact. His voice is level. “I’m sure. I’m okay.” The bell is ringing. He’s waiting outside another classroom and that teacher – his teacher, I assume – will be here in just a moment. He’s not moving anywhere. So I move on.
Grade nines are my little people. They are small and cute (or obnoxious, one of the two!) and I’m usually quite charmed by them and their particular brand of worldly innocence. Today I have them working on a task, analyzing the functions of the characters in our novel. They have the option of working in groups, or pairs, or alone. I have three lone rangers, several pairs, and a threesome settled right near the door: two girls and a boy. One of the girls is dating the boy. I smile on the inside. Did I mention cute? Denny works hard to look tough. She’s spent a good portion of this class already talking about how she’d be going on the volleyball trip with the others if she hadn’t dropped off the team; how volleyball just wasn’t her thing; how it’s okay she isn’t going. It’s killing her, but she’s smiling and trying to be nonchalant. I don’t know the backstory and I give her some free reign to vent this conflicted emotion. In their group they get back to work – it only takes a gentle nudge. The phone rings. “It’s for you,” I say, and point the receiver to Denny. She makes a tasteless tough-girl joke, apologizes and gets up. I’m not listening in; I’m checking in on the other kids. Her voice isn’t rising, it’s actually getting quieter, but there’s tension – I can hear it. She hangs up and goes back to her desk. Her friend looks up, and her boyfriend’s eyebrows are scrunched. “I don’t know what she thinks. I don’t want anything to do with her!” Her friends’ voices drop and their conversation goes underground. Ms R comes over to whisper in my ear: “It was a message from her social worker. She’s got a surprise visit from her mom. She’s not happy about it!” I glance back over but she and her group are heads down, working on the assignment again.
Landra is sitting alone in the hallway, waiting for her bus. She’s a quiet one: I think she’s hoping I’ll learn to read her mind. Her eyes are huge pools of dark brown – her pupils disappear in them. I smile and ask if she finished reading her latest novel, The Girl On the Train? She nods. “Would you like another book to take home?” She nods again. I’ve been thinking about her reading choices – very mature and difficult reads for a grade nine girl. I remember my time in grade nine – bored with the reading done in class I read The Hobbit, and The Thorn Birds, and Sybil. Not the usual young adolescent fare my classmates were reading. I crook my finger at her and she gets up, leaving her books neatly stacked to hide her phone which is charging at the only outlet in that hallway. We go to the library and I say, “Sarah’s Key, I think. Or maybe A Thousand Splendid Suns.” I can’t remember the authors’ names, but my visual memory tells me where the books should be on our library shelves. I point her in a direction to find the one, which she does quickly, and I find the other. On the way back upstairs I tell her briefly the plots – her eyes widen and she gets a little hint of excitement on her face. I don’t want to play anything up. “I don’t know. Maybe you’ll just look at them and think, ‘No’, but check them out over the weekend and let me know what you think on Monday.” She grins, and drops back out of my radar.
Terry followed me into my classroom at the end of the day to talk, “you know, about that thing.” “What thing? Remind me.” “My assignment! The writing I did.” Aaaah! I understand. He’s looking for some positive input and hoping to get a little personal attention for a job well done. I can do that! I check when my chiropractor appointment is: 4:15. I have a half hour. Maria is sitting at the table working on posters for an upcoming Student Leadership Council event. The door is open. I can hear the janitor in the hallway. I’m okay to be alone with this boy after school. We sit down at two desks with his paper between us. I point out my favourite bits of his work: really great imagery, how he closed the gate in his story to “give it a rest from the wind”; some strong language that created a vivid inner life for his character; details that brought me into the events and created tension. Well done. “But oh my, Terry! Your mechanics and conventions are, well, horrible!!” Terry is 19 and on the Adult Track to graduation. His life isn’t easy – he’s holding down two jobs to pay his bills; he has secrets he doesn’t share with me; and commitments that keep him from committing fully to his school work. Last week he was sour and discouraged and I’d contacted our support team of mentors to see if they could check up on him! In spite of this I’ve seen him after school getting extra help more often than any of my ‘advantaged’ students. He smiles. “What are mechanics and conventions?” I see Maria trying not to eavesdrop, though she can hardly help it – she’s only eight feet away. I explain: grammar, punctuation, formatting, paragraphing. He nods. I point out his second page of writing – he wrote for 27 lines without a single period. There wasn’t a paragraph break for one and a half pages. He’s grinning. “Oh! That stuff.” “Yeah, that stuff. And Terry, apostrophes!” “What’s an apostrophe?” Maria is grinning now, hiding behind her hair, gluing foam letters onto the posters. I give a quick lesson on contractions (“What are those?” And, after I explain, “Oh! Because they contract the word!”) and possessives. He asks good questions. He tells me that other teachers have said he’d get better grades if he could pay attention to this stuff. “I’m glad to see you’re ready now, to pay attention to this stuff.” He wants a chance to rewrite the paper; to get a better mark. My heart soars! Yes!! We talk about his other commitments and I agree to give him a week to rewrite this one, provided he doesn’t fall behind on his current assignments. He agrees and leaves with his work, my comments in purple highlighter all over it.
I check the clock and Maria walks out, smiling, having not said a single word. I look again at my schedule. Oh gosh! My appointment was for 3:15 – 4:15. I’d misread it. A half hour late! I call the chiropractor’s office and reschedule. I’m going home: pulling out my adult colouring book and just going to let the day melt away over pencil crayons and a glass of red wine.