Conversations I Don’t Want to Lose

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Period One

It started at about 8:55. I was taking attendance and P. pops her head in. I hadn’t seen her in a week and I smiled – she should come in! She walked straight up to my standing desk and came around it and looked me full in the eyes and didn’t say anything. She was pale. We were standing in front of my ELA A10 class – they were all reading or still pulling their eyelids open. She still didn’t say anything so I started, smiling, “Hey! I haven’t seen you in a while! You’re alive and well! Good to see you.”

She was still looking at me full straight in the face, eyes wide open, crooked smile.

I love this girl. She has had my heart from the moment I met her … what? Three years ago?

“Where have you been?” I ask.

“In the hospital.”

I pause. “In the hospital? For what? Are you okay?”

She tells me some hard things, some I-don’t-want-to-hear-these things.

My chest caught. My eyes stung. I reached out and pulled her close and she hugged me hard. “Don’t cry, Mrs. G.” I was very close to crying then. I AM crying now, as I write this.

“No, no. I won’t cry. You’re okay. You’re okay now.”

“Yes.”

She explained a bit, told me some details, answered a few sparse and careful questions. She asked for her missed work – she’s a smart girl and there wasn’t much; she’ll be caught up on no time. She smiled at me again, and walked out.

*************************************************************************************

Homeroom

In my homeroom class I like to connect with each student at least once, even just for a few sentences. I try to touch them – a finger-touch on the hand, a hand on the shoulder, a playful punch in the arm. I want them to know I see them, I notice them, I acknowledge them. But I don’t start that way. I start by reading the school announcements, and making sure anyone who needs a lunch voucher gets it. Today I added a few words about the survey we’d done the day before about what we like about homeroom, what needs to change, what needs to be ditched. Keep-Chuck-Change, a former principal used to say.

The surveys were almost unanimous – everyone but one liked getting their homework done in school and not having to take it home. The dissenter said homework should be done at home and homeroom should be reserved for playing games. About half said they wanted more games overall and the other half said they’d like it to be quieter so they could read and think. Some liked the help getting their binders organized – I’m a little fanatical about that. Some wanted snacks. I mentioned that one single person asked for less reading time, that there maybe shouldn’t be reading time. I didn’t look at her as I said this, and one boy said, “I think we all know who that would be!” But I laughed because he’s so wrong. So wrong! I told him that if my assumption about his assumption was correct then his assumption was incorrect! He laughed back.

Later, on my rounds to make connections, I asked E. if it was her survey that made the comment about the reading.  She’s a good girl. Really good. Wants so much to be good but is filled with zest and zip and fire and it sparks all over and sometimes she can’t contain it very well. But when push comes to shove, she’s a good girl. She looked down and was really quiet and said, “I didn’t say we shouldn’t ever read, but that maybe we don’t need to read so much. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“Oh, you didn’t offend me. I laughed and laughed! Remember when you told me that at parent-teacher interviews? I remembered that too. I knew what you meant!”

“Oh good,” she said. I’d prepared a note for this moment and I slid it towards her.

You are a really strong reader. You read a lot. I notice the way you burn through books. You’ve read a half dozen already this year. But we have students who don’t read as much. For the sake of them, because they need more practise, can we compromise?

She looked up into my eyes and smiled. I smiled. I reached over and grabbed the note, crumpling it in my hand and moved on to the next student.

*************************************************************************************

Period Two

Yesterday I tried to teach these little lugnuts something about grammar. Sentence construction, actually. I want them to understand that understanding grammar is a reading comprehension strategy, that being able to pull a sentence apart, to make it make sense, is a necessary skill for reading dense text. And we’re moving into Sinclair Ross’ short story, The Painted Door. This skill is going to be absolutely critical!

But yesterday they would have none of it. I started simply: subject-verb. Very blank looks. I tried again: the simple sentence. Zombie stares. I asked, “When is the last time you had a grammar lesson?” One student volunteered, “Kindergarten!”

I burst out laughing. That’s a good one. Kindergarten! Oh seesh.

It was a distastrous lesson. I tried. I laughed. They laughed at me. I struggled. They mocked my efforts. It was just all no good. On the way out the door S. said, “Mrs. G, just stop the madness already!”

Stop the madness. I can’t even. These kids wreck me.

Anyhow, today I tried again. I got to class having thought through how I’d approach it, but within a half second I caught a whim! I shifted gears and compared the simple sentence to a basic soup broth.

“It’s like this. When you make soup you need water and flavour to start. That’s it: the most simple soup. Maybe you boil water with a chicken carcass, or maybe with a beef bone, or some fish, but you make a broth and that’s the most simple soup: water and flavour.”

They were quiet and listening.

“Then, after that, if you want to get fancy, you can add things.”

I drew four rows on the board, and following each I gave examples.

Proteins:  chicken, beef, tofu, fish, beans

Carbs: barley, rice, macaroni, pasta

Produce: asperagus, onions, garlic, potatoes, beets, canteloupe (that last one threw them off their game – we had a whole rabbit-trail conversation about fruit soups. Most were not for that.)

Seasonings: salt, pepper, cumin, dill, basil, rosemary

I talked about how you could choose what you want to add, but your choices created different kinds of soup. And how you could have two pots of soup going on the stove, and if they were compatable, you could merge them and make a whole new kind of soup.

They were totally following me. I got that kind of little teacher-ecstasy that happens when you know you’ve got ’em where you want ’em.

Then came the big punch: “And sentences are just like that! You start with a simple sentence – just a subject and a verb. But you can add what you like: objects, or qualifiers, or clauses, or punctuation. Each addition creates a different kind of sentence!” Lights were going on all over the room!

I was all proud. Like, “Look here what I did! I got grade 12 students interested in grammar!” Ha! By the end of class I was typing sentences onto my Smartboard and they were pulling them apart like kids pick onions out of their minestrone!

*************************************************************************************

Period Three

Tiny class of four. It’s a luxury I have at my school. My kids might be high needs, but I get one class a year where low low enrollment is tolerated for the sake of those who love the class: Creative Writing 20. We have a little artsy school: dancers and visual artists, dramatists and writers. So I have four students who collectively have written almost 200 000 words in November for #NaNoWriMo. They are fine writers.

Today I had them write short thank you notes to our Municipal Liaison for all the work he did coordinating meetings and the Thank God It’s Over Party. One of them could not get serious.

“Naw Dawg, I be hanging with my homeslice tomorrow nights, rolling the dice, makin’ all nice!”

Or “Yo Homie, ima takin’ care o’ my block. Y’all deal good, but I’m all g.”

The other kids were cracking up. I mean, they were giggling like primary girls. They couldn’t keep it together.

Last week they asked me to compare their writing styles to famous authors: I dubbed them Tolstoy, George R R Martin. Stephanie Meyers and Dan Brown. They were all puffed up like toasted marshmellows. And today they dissolved absolutely into wee things who could not hold their composure for more than a moment. One of them, probably the most studious and hard working of all of them, kept making these smart-ass comebacks, and, probably because it was so out of character for him, they were busting their bellies in laughter.

I couldn’t even help myself. They were hysterical; I was laughing; no one could get a straight face for more than a moment!

“Okay, okay, okay. Ian, [our liaison] would get a kick out of this, but you’ve got to take all the gangsta out of this. Seriously, people. Let’s grow some dignity here!”

They did. They wrote fine three sentence notes. For kids who are writing entire novels, three sentences is pretty skimpy. But, you know, sometimes being concise is the finest art.

*************************************************************************************

Lunch Hour

I was on supervision in the lunch room today. It can be the best of times or the worst of times, depending on the mood of the kids. Sometimes they’re aloof and cold and distant; that’s okay. And sometimes they’re noisy and defiant and dancing on the fine edge of out-of-control. That’s exhausting. Today they were hyper, and laughing, and full of good natured comraderie.

I see T. who hasn’t been in school more than five days this semester all told. And here she is! For the second time in a week! I plop myself beside her and ask how she’s doing.

She smiles. She has quite the disarming smile. She is fine.

I am not one to mince words, and so getting straight to the point, I say, “So, this is the second time I’ve seen you in this week! Things are looking up! Is this going to be a trend now?”

She kind of chuckles and nods. We talk. Like, we really talk, me and this 15 year old girl. She tells me that she’s going to be coming regularly now; that her living situation has changed; that she’s at her grandmother’s now.

I’m sure she was at her grandmother’s last month too, so I’m not sure how that’s going to change anything. She tells me her mom’s moved out from her boyfriend’s place because he said he was going to kill her. She looked at me, “And he would, too. He’d kill her.”

“Then she should move out. Killing is bad. I’m opposed.” She nodded agreement.

She tells me she feels “stupid” when she doesn’t come to school. I tell her that’s good – it means she’s a good person; that she’s discovered that doing nothing is actually as boring as it sounds. She smiled.

She’s lied through her smiles and shy glances before, deliberately misleading me so she could not be traced back to any of the phone numbers on her registration form. I point this out and she nods. Not blushing, not squirming, not denying anything. “Yes. It’s got to change,” she says.

I remind her of what she wrote in her journal last time she was in class: that she was going to start coming to class; that if her mom could get up at two in the morning to work at the bakery and then take the night shift at the local cornerstore, just to make ends meet, then surely she could get herself to school. She wrote that. In her own handwriting. No more than a month ago.

Again with that smile and nod, and shy glance.

Well, I like her. We’ll see what comes of this.

***

Meanwhile, there’s a group of very rowdy boys, some arm-wrestling on one end of their table, and some sharing poutine at the other. One of the poutine-sharers is sipping on a Monster drink. Energy drinks are banned at our school because of their potentially dangerous effects on teenagers. One of the boys has just stood up and I quickly slide in to take his spot. Monster-drinker T. hasn’t noticed that I’m beside him – he’s a super extroverted kid (read: loud, gregarious, oversized in every regard already without the Monster drink!) – and I just move his drink from in front of him to in front of me. I have my hands around it, feeling the chill. Several students noticed and became quiet, just watching. And then T. noticed.

He reached over to grab his drink and I slid my hand up so he couldn’t get hold of it. His hand hesitated for just a moment and a look flickered across his face – that moment of indecision: to over-react or to not react? Before he could decide I gestured he should sit back down. And he did.

By now, the room was watching. Everyone was quiet. Some kids even got up from their tables to come stand around, listening. I was talking very softly and there was not a word falling to the ground.

“So, at our school we have a no-energy drinks policy. Do you know why?”

He did not.

“Because these drinks contain the right chemicals to stop a teenage heart.” I pause for effect and then continue. “Obviously, not every teenage heart stops. Clearly you’ve had many of these and look at you. You’re not close to dead.”

General agreement.

“However, we at the school can’t know which student is going to react in which way. Imagine if you had one of these and you dropped over. Then what? We’d have to call your parents and there’d be ambulances and hospitals and who knows? Funerals, oh my goodness. And at some time someone would say to us, You knew that energy drinks could kill a kid and you still let them drink them?? Imagine! What would we say to that? Yeah, but the kids like them so much and they throw such tantrums when they can’t have them!

I grin to show I jest. And he grins (Thank you, God!) and other kids nod.

He says, in a little voice, “But, but it’s my Monster drink!” This kid is a towering six feet or more tall. Burly. Wins a lot of arm wrestling matches. He’s being playful.

I agree. “‘Tis. ‘Tis. I’ll put it in the office, with your name on it. You can pick it up after school.” He agrees, and I rise, Monster still in my hands, and return to my seat a few tables over where my salad has been abandoned.  My hand is still on the drink, because T. is hovering.  S. walks in, and takes one look at me, her face drops and her mouth gapes open. “Mrs. G!! Are you drinking that!?? Those aren’t allowed in the school!!”

I smile. You’d think I was gulping a cool one, or something. One of the other kids explains.

And then K. comes in. She and I have struggled to understand each other. She’s not in any of my classes and my interactions with her have all been disciplinary, or misunderstood, or tense. But she’s in a good mood, and her friends have joined me at my table with the salad and the Monster drink. She plops down right beside me, points straight at the can, and says, “That stuff’ll kill me. It’s poison.”

T. is sitting there. He looks at her. “I have a heart murmur,” she says, like I’d scripted this!! “I have a heart murmur and one can will kill me. I can’t have anything like that.”

I turn slowly to look at T. and grin. “See??  Now how are we supposed to know who has a heart murmur and who doesn’t around here?”

Another kid pipes up, “What if you didn’t know you had a heart murmur and you had a Monster drink?”

“Dead,” says K.

Wow. Like, some days I love my job.

At the end of the day, about five minutes after the 3:15 bell, T. pops his head into my classroom door. “Mrs. G.!” I look up. “I got my Monster back!” He grins, and toasts me, and leaves with his can in hand.

*************************************************************************************

Period Four

The bell has just rung and kids are all trying to get themselves sorted out. You know how people generally sit in the same places all the time? This class is half and half: half sit always in the same place, and the other half shuffle around from spot to spot. I never quite know where I’ll find them from one class to the next. Anyhow, I’m trying to get attendance done and they’re trying to settle their minds to the task of reading. Once they do, they all read. All of them. One struggles quite a lot to settle into a book, but even him, once he does – he’s in. Anyhow, at this point, they’re still half chatting and half trying to get comfortable and some messing with binders. General settling in noise everywhere.

And in walks KS. He is struggling with too much in his hands. He can’t hold all his stuff and sign in the late binder at the same time. He walks over to his desk, which happens to be right in front of me because the never-in-the-same-place-twice gang hasn’t taken his spot. He puts everything down: blue cloth binder, pencil case, novel, journal notebook and a very large box of extra spicy dry noodles.

I mark him present and go over to pick up his box of noodles. He’s back at his desk just as I am and I ask, “Is this your lunch, KS?” He nods. I sigh. “I’m not going to let you have this, KS,” and I see a dark dark cloud come over him. “I’m not going to let you have this because it involves hot water and you’d have to go out to get that, and then you’d have to eat it and it’s messy and you need to be reading. But I hate to see you hungry, so ….. are you allergic to peanuts?”

The cloud lifts. “I love peanuts. They’re one of my favourites!” But I already knew that. I’m halfway to my desk to get a Clif Bar, the peanut butter one. I keep a few boxes for myself in my desk because I don’t always get lunch either. I bring it back and give it to him. He takes it without a word; maybe a small thanks. I can’t remember. I’m circulating around the room to make sure everyone’s actually settling in.

When I see KS next he’s slouched deep into his desk, his book in one hand, eyes glued to the page, Clif bar in the other hand, chewing and chewing and reading and chewing.

So so satisfying.

*************************************************************************************

Period Five

I’m on my prep. I’m all excited today because my new flip chart/portable white board is in! There’s a giant box sitting in the middle of my floor and I need to find P., the custodian on my floor, to get an exacto knife. C. presents herself in front of me.

I am so proud of C. this year – she started all sketchy, true to her last-year’s-self, but in the last two months has really really picked up her game. I think I’m just learning to really love her. She’s pretty intense.

Yesterday morning she came flying into class about two minutes late, swooped over the late binder, signed in, swept to her desk to drop her books and skated over to me, breathless. “Are you going to mark me late?”

Uh …. now I don’t know what to say. I wasn’t going to actually, because I hadn’t even started taking attendance yet and she was in before I began; and I didn’t really open my door until just moments before the bell so everyone was just sort of drifting in just at the bell instead of before. So, I wasn’t going to mark her late. But now that she’s already signed in late, and she is actually truthfully late, and she’s directly asking me I’m not sure what to say. So, all graceful-like, I stammer.

“Because I tried really really hard to get here on time.” She’s looking at me. She has this demeanor of intensity and power and truthfulness and rawness, actually, that’s quite compelling. Or off-putting, depending on how she wields it.  “And I need to talk to you. Can we talk sometime this class? …. Am I late?”

I explain everything I was thinking and she’s clearly relieved she isn’t marked late; we agree to meet after class; and without so much as a thanks or okay she’s back at her desk, book in hand.

I am left blinking.

After class that day she is standing in front of me again, waiting, expectation all over her. Kids are starting to come in for the next period and she indicates she wants to talk in the hall, but it’s full too so we move into my neighbour’s classroom – she has no class coming in for the next period.

She tells me everything in a rush. Her boyfriend is living with her and her mom said that if she gets into any trouble or anything at school then he’s out and he has no place to go, Mrs. G. and so she has to be really good so he can stay and keep going to school too. This is really important. She’s trying super hard because she loves him and wants to support him and isn’t doing this so he doesn’t have to do anything for himself but he has no one and she just wants to do this.

I say how I like how her mother clearly wants C. to fulfill her potential and do well in school, “… but you know, C., you are not responsible for D. He’s his own person. You can’t make him successful. And you need to be doing well at school for your own sake, not his.”

“That’s not what my mother said. She said You brought him into this house. You’re responsible for what happens next.

Well, okay, that makes sense too. Anyhow, I assure her that she’s doing alright. She’s in school. She’s coming! Her attendance is over 80% last month and she’s caught up on all her work. She is absolutely beaming at me.

“I notice these things, C. I’m super proud of you!”

She turns and like that, she’s gone. And then she’s back. “Thanks for cutting me some slack about that late!” And then she’s gone.

So today, she presents herself to me. She needs a phone number and her phone is glitched so she can’t look it up. Could I look it up for her: the sexual health clinic.

One breath. Yes. I nod. I look it up for her and write it down on a sticky note. She grabs it and is out the door.

Later, I’m running downstairs to get some markers for my new white board, and as I come around a corner, there’s D., her boyfriend. He pulls short to a full stop right in front of me at the bottom of the stairs. I come, full stop, mid stairs. He’s staring at me, grinning like I’d given him a car.

“What, D? What’s up?”

“Nothing, Mrs. G. I just really really like you.”

“Oh. Good! That’s good. ….. Why aren’t you in class?”

And he’s gone too. Like the wind, both of them.

*************************************************************************************

After School

I’m in my room trying to create an anchor chart that shows text structures. I’d looked up a half dozen online and all of them only sort of suited my purposes, so I was trying to construct something that would work. And there’s TS. She’s in her full parka and boots. Just standing there. Her eyes are huge, like Bambi, and she has the steadiest gaze in the world, like a laser.

We exchange greetings and she says nothing and goes no where. I continue working, thinking she’ll speak her piece. Nope. She doesn’t speak her piece. So I put my marker down and give her my full attention. After some poking and prodding to get it out of her I learn that she can’t go home; her sister has gone to an appointment and won’t be back for a half hour to get her. I invite her to stay and she pulls off her jacket, then stands there. I invite her to sit down and she does. I suggest she do her English to catch up on a couple of missed classes and then she’s doing that too. We figure out what she needs to do and then we are working together, she on her work and I on mine, in silence. This went on quite comfortably for about 20 minutes.

R., a graduated student from last year, rounds the corner and there he is! I take a second to register who it is I’m looking at and my heart turns all warm! It’s R.! He smiles, and I’m all happy. I have loved that smile for four solid years. He was just back in town to take care of a few things and he had to drop in. I love that. I mean, how fabulous is that? He tells me all about police school, and one really hard class, and having to do daily incident reports at school and practising talking to intimidating people and having to talk to strangers every day for homework! He tells me about how hard it is to get tutorial help (he always came for extra help, sitting in class for an hour after school many days just to get his questions answered) and how “It’s not like here, Mrs. G!”

“R., do you remember about three weeks before grad when Ms. A. hauled you up here and sat you in that desk right there and asked me to give you one of my famous lectures?”

He breaks his cheeks with that smile! He does remember. He glances over at the desk where it happened. “And you had to convince me to stay in school for another three weeks, to graduate.”

“Yup, R. Because you thought life was too rough to go on right then. Remember how bad it was? And you stayed. And you graduated. And look at you. Back then, would you have thought you’d be so happy and proud in just five months?”

“Naw. I couldn’t believe anything then. That was bad. Then.”  He looks up. “Thanks for that, Mrs. G.”

He talks about his room mates and how his funding is still good and how he’s still trying to figure out how to live in a big city. We chat. I want to take him home but he smiles and has to go. He’ll come by again. “Have a good day, Mrs. G.”

Aaaawwwwww! I’m all warm tea and cookies inside by now.

Shortly after R. leaves, TS turns around. “Mrs. G., when I first came here I was really really shy and just never talked to anyone.”

“You really were, TS.”

“Yeah, you noticed that, hey.”

“Wow. I sure did.”

“But since I fell flat on my face that time at the front of your room, it’s just better.”

Okay, seriously? Here’s the story:

There’s a broken tile right at the threshold of my door. There’s a work order put in to repair it, but until then the tile’s a little jagged. TS came in late to class one day last week, and her mocassin snagged on the broken tile. One minute she was upright and then just like that she was on her face. In front of the entire class. It was so sudden and so abrupt that the whole class gasped and everyone wanted to know if she was okay because honestly, you know how if you drop a binder flat on the floor its whole surface landing at once it just makes the most kabooming racket? Her whole self hit the floor at once. She might not have even had breath left in her. I raced over and she was shaking. One of the most shy students in all my classes lying there prostrate in front of the entire class. I couldn’t imagine how to comfort her. I gently lifted her hair to see her face and ….. and she was laughing. Laughing! Nearly hysterically!

“TS! How does falling flat on your face in front of everyone make everything better for the most shy girl in the school?”

“I don’t know!” She’s bright eyed. “I just decided to make it okay.”

This is amazing. TS’s mother died in August. In September she and her sister moved to our little city and they started life over in a new school, where they knew no one.

“Life was really hard for you in September, TS. You cried every single day.”

I have an enduring image of this girl I barely know, standing in front of me, huge deep brown eyes swimming over with tears, not a muscle on her face twitching. No sorry blotches, no runny nose, no choking sobs, but tears and tears and tears streaming down her face. She made no effort to stop them or mop them up. She let them fall and stared at me, her utterly useless teacher of only a few days.

She nods.

“And you didn’t even talk to me. Did you know even one person?”

“No, I only knew my sister and no one else.”

“I felt so bad for you every day, TS. I felt awful and there was nothing I could do to help you. I was pretty worried.”

She nods.

“But falling on your face made it better?”

She is smiling so wide right now, at this point in the conversation. “I just decided it had to be.”

I love her.

*************************************************************************************

Honestly, people. I 800% love my job right now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Conversations I Don’t Want to Lose

    • Oh gee. Thanks! I can sure you that not every student loves my class. I run a pretty tight ship and there are those who look for ways to avoid being scheduled in my room too! That’s true for every teacher, I think maybe. And certainly this was an exceptional day.

    • Thank you. The day itself was beautiful, one to remember. I have a memory like a sieve, so such a lovely day needed to be recorded. On less lovely days I have this to comfort me, like a nursery blanket!

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