I watch as a student of mine piles out of a worn-out, rumbling pick-up truck. As he is about to shut the door, his father, presumably, barks a command to him in Spanish. He opens the door ever so slightly and dutifully begins to roll the window up with the old-school crank. Without another word or look, he shuts the door and walks toward the entrance of the school with his head down.
“Hey there, you ok?” I ask as he gets closer. With sleepy eyes and an upward glance, he gives a response that nearly breaks my heart, “My father just doesn’t like me very much.” Without an articulate reply ready, I ask if he wants to talk. He politefuly declines as he makes his way inside the school.
I remember being emotionally bulldozed by stories such as this one my first year of teaching. Sadly, after six years of teaching, I have seemingly grown accustomed to stories of hardship; my experience does not make the hurt easier to handle, it just makes it more common.
I greet students in the hallway as they enter class. One soft-spoken senior girl pulls me aside, “Can I ask you something, miss?” I nod and pat her shoulder, encouraging her to ask whatever is on her mind. “Do you have to be a resident in order to visit someone in jail?” I lower my teacher voice to reflect the trust she has given me by asking me such an open-hearted, yet simple question. She explains her family is worried about being deported, and I wonder and rack my brain for any way in which I can possibly make her fears subside. I stumble on the words to do just that and eventually refer her to someone who would be able to answer her question better than me.
It is 9:16, the bell rings, and class is beginning. I need another cup of earl grey.
While students independently read, I skim the room with my eyes. I wonder what makes them so tired on this Monday morning that some cannot even keep their heads up. Too much partying? Working? Taking care of family? I am sure it is a mix of all three, but I really just want to lecture to those snoring about the importance of a good night’s sleep and eating healthy meals (instead of, say, the hot cheetos they brought in for breakfast). I know the conversation alone, which I have had many times over the years, will not convince them to fully commit to either one of those lifestyle choices.
My mind goes to the image of my students as young children, and the startling statistic about the 32-million word gap that exists by the age of 4 between kids whose families are on welfare and those kids who families are considered to be professional, by societal standards. The school I have taught at for the last six years has a student population that is considered to be, at least 95 percent, in poverty (as defined by having free or reduced lunch).
At the beginning of each year, I assign an essay called the “Literacy Autobiography”, which requires students to reflect on their history with reading and writing. Some have positive experiences–in school or at home–and many have negative and, often times, sad memories to share. The one that is seared in my memory is of a current senior who is at the top of her class. She wrote that although her mom so desperately wanted to be with her more and read to her every night, she simply could not; she had to work three jobs to make ends meet as a single mom. The family member who did watch her did not know how to read very well.
I think about the writing practice notebooks that I have for each of my classes. The rules are there are no rules for writing practice, so long as they do not stop writing during the time we have allotted. If students would like me to read what they wrote, they can hand me their notebook at the door. If they do not, I pinky-promise them I will never open up those composition notebooks that wait for them in my classroom cabinet until the next day.
Two students hand me their notebooks at the door. I am honored and touched to be granted a pass to view their personal thoughts. One is about a father who returns from years long of an absence. Through her charged language, she expresses hate toward a father she never knew. The other notebook reveals a humble story of being grateful. Grateful for the life he leads even though his mom is still sick with cancer in Mexico while he and his father are working as much as possible here to pay the medical bills.
I close the notebook and wonder how many more sad stories I can take.
I realize there is a certain level of energy that teaching requires. I yearn to be the teacher who is completely present with all of my students all the time. This goal, however, sounds much easier than it is. Even before marriage and motherhood, I struggled to find that balance.
For now, I choose to be completely present with my students when we are together. When I have left the classroom, however, and I am again with my family, I choose to leave my students and all of their stories behind. Because in the end, as much as I love and care for my students, I have too many stories of love and laughter that I hope to create with my own child.
And those are stories that cannot be put on hold.