Today I drove into the parking lot of my school to see our flag was at half mast. We all know why, and thoughts and prayers aren’t going to do a lot to fix it. I don’t know the answer to this problem. I’m a teacher. I can tell you that this year for most students forgetting their homework was the least of their worries.
Each year, one of our assistant principals asks the teachers to identify 2-3 students that need extra attention this year on a 3×5 card. Students can end up on my list for a variety of reasons, but after the first week in middle school I do a little activity that helps me identify just who might need this the most. I ask 6th graders to write down who they are friends with during homeroom. It can be first names or descriptions, and sometimes I get things like “kid who sits by me at lunch wearing the red hoodie.” I do this to ensure students have a friend. I tell the story of my own child who went to school her first day of 6th grade and came home so excited. She said, “I made a friend, but it was really two friends.” I asked additional questions, and she informed me she thought she made one friend in science and one in math. At lunch it turned out identical twins were dressed alike, and they both found her at the lunch tables. We still laugh about this years later.
Can you imagine spending 7 hours a day somewhere you had no friends? This year only two students reported they had no friends during homeroom. One was a student named Lucas. The other student was named Katie. Immediately, I knew they would be two of my students for my personal 3×5 card.
The other two on my list happened in a more complicated way. “Winter” was added because she rarely did as she was told, and she filmed a raging Snapchat video calling me out by name and school. She called me every name in the book, and some names I was pretty sure she made up on the spot. As it turns out, she lived with grandparents, and one was ill. She would come in some days eager to learn, and some days she was anywhere in her mind but school.
The last name on my list, Kaitlyn, slept through my class (or tried to) each day in the first 6 weeks of class. She had a daily smirk on her face, and she was besties with “Winter.” One day I made a point to try to get to the bottom of why Kaitlyn was struggling, and I found out her phone number did not work. None of the phone numbers worked. Digging further I discovered her family had been evicted, and she was likely sleeping in her car. It all made sense now.
There are plenty of other students my team had this year that needed extra attention, but the other teachers claimed those students for their own 3×5 cards. While focusing on my 4 students, I discovered that Lucas was DELIGHTFUL. He was too wise for his years, and he was “get off my lawn years old” at the ripe age of 11. He is hilarious to listen to, hangs on each detail of what other people say, and will go out of his way to help anyone. He also is a tech guru, and he will help each student find the charger for his or her Chromebook with minimal complaining. He volunteered to clean the desks, ran the sanitizing station, and if you need an errand kid, he is your student to send on a “hobbit journey” to the office. He will likely one day employ half his classmates at some startup, and they will be astounded at what he will accomplish. I will not be astounded. I am quite sure he is beyond capable of doing anything he puts his mind to doing.
Katie was a little more complex. She was so quiet and shy I almost couldn’t hear her. She never smiled. Most people don’t know I’m partially deaf, so I am excellent at reading lips. Katie gave me a lot of practice this year. The lunch room is so loud, so I offered her a safe place to eat in the classroom as long as she asked two or three friends to come with her so she could chat with someone. One day a sweet student came up to me as I was waiting on Katie’s group to get lunch trays and asked me if Katie was “allowed to” maybe eat with them that day. I don’t know who smiled harder- me or Katie! By January she was eating in the cafeteria more, and by March she quit coming to my classroom. She has loads of friends. They all beg her to sit with them. She smiles all the time. It will never stop amazing me how much she grew over 6th grade this year.
“Winter” had ups and downs. She struggled all year. Once the Snapchat was out there, I never told her I had been shown the video by another concerned student. Each week I would ask her if she needed anything. She never had a snack when the other kids did. I started giving her bags of Goldfish crackers. I never fussed at her for not having supplies; I quietly gave them to her. Her attitude changed over the course of the year. She agreed to do what I asked, and she told me more about her home life. She started trusting an adult. She might not have learned a lot of my subject matter this year, but honestly, some lessons are more important than state standards.
Kaitlyn ended up placed with a different family member as a result of a sibling finally sharing the situation. We made sure she had dress code clothing, and we let her change as needed into the clothing. The team all stepped up to help her succeed, and after the day I carefully told her I knew she had been homeless, and we were going to take care of her anyway we could, she never slept in my class again. She didn’t end the year with us. Our area got expensive, and she went to live with family in another state. I say prayers for her all the time, and I hope she finds a real home and sense of home wherever she is now.
We try to not let any students fall through the cracks. We try to identify those that need extra. We try to meet needs that parents can’t meet. We try to help each child feel like they belong. We love on the babies. Middle schoolers will tell you they aren’t babies, but I’ve taught just about all grades from 1st to 12th. Let me assure you, they are BABIES. Some are very tall babies, but they are still babies. Brains do not get finished “cooking” until they are 25. My students’ brains are just half-way done with growing and forming. Of course they will make mistakes. Of course they will regret things. Of course they are at the mercy of puberty. Of course they are at the mercy of their personal circumstances. Those things are not the fault of the child I teach each day. Sometimes even the adult that belongs to them isn’t at fault for the failure. Sometimes life just isn’t fair, and some of our students know and feel that on a more personal level than others. I can only do what I can do. I am one teacher.
This morning I went into my classroom and a gift bag in my favorite color was on my counter. I assumed a coworker left it there. I checked the card, and it had my name on it in childlike handwriting. I opened it carefully. Out fell a gift card to my favorite restaurant. The card thanked me for the school year. Underneath, in careful 6th grade penmanship, it said, “I appreciate you more than you will ever know.” It was signed by Lucas. The gift card was beyond sweet. My favorite candy was also in the bag. The words written in the card are what almost knocked the wind out of me.
I sat down at my desk, the only thing left in the room not stacked in neat rows for the summer cleaning ritual. I reread it. I was overwhelmed, but words written were the best gift I was given this year. The 2021-2022 school year was HARD. At times I felt like I failed daily. I opened my desk drawer to find the 3×5 card from the beginning of the year. The little list of names with Lucas at the top was just inside. He noticed. He recognized he was cared about.
I love these kids. I only get one year, and then most students might not remember my name or say hi if they see me at Target. I will not forget Lucas. I will not forget Katie. I will not forget “Winter”. I will not forget Kaitlyn.
I will not forget them because I needed a Lucas this year. I needed a Katie, “Winter”, and a Kaitlyn. I learn so much about compassion, anxiety, generational poverty, homelessness, and friendship from these students. We don’t have to change the entire world. We can just start with our Lucas.
I don’t always teach students. Most of the time, they teach me too.