The March Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by Two Writing Teachers .
In the back of my classroom, where our mini lesson easel sits between two corners, a storage area has developed over the years. This is where my kids (sixth grade to alumni in seventh and eighth) leave their assorted sports bags first thing every morning, ready for quick collection after school. What started with a bag or two has morphed into a big pile of “stuff” that we often have to jockey around, but I have grown very fond of this mess o’stuff, as it gives me the opportunity to see my “old” kids and be a part of their lives long after they’ve left room 202.
So, I didn’t think much of it when Henry (not his real name) asked if he could leave his stuff, too. Time passed, and I began to notice that Henry brought his bag no matter what the weather, and no matter if practice had been called off for the next day on account of the weather, or some other reason. When I asked him, as I do everyone else, if there was a game that day or a practice, just so that I could wish them luck, Henry was evasive – he’d shrug, avert his eyes, shuffle off. But I didn’t think much of that, either, since Henry is a shy kid, and there was something very guarded in his expression – especially in his slate-blue eyes. Quiet, reserved, and rather mature in his behavior (none of the usual sixth grade horsing around antics or silliness for him), he was difficult to picture on the basketball court or the soccer field. He liked his solitude.
I noticed that there were times when Henry would appear with his bag when no one else had brought theirs, and that he’d often bring in more than one bag if we were in for a snow day, or beginning a break. I was curious, but, again, felt that I shouldn’t ask Henry what was going on. Then we went for a stretch when there was no bag at all, and then another stretch when he’d show up with it every day. And then there were times when he didn’t come to fetch his bag after all, and it just sat there overnight or over the weekend. After one such incident, I made a little joke about it the next day: “Hey, Henry, hope there was nothing alive in there on Friday – you’d better check!” …which seemed to upset Henry. He flushed, and seemed on the verge of tears, even offering an apology: “I’m sorry. I don’t have to leave my stuff here if it’s a problem.” Of course not! I insisted…and made a note to myself to never joke about this again.
Last Friday, Henry appeared with his bags again. One of them was a shopping bag, and I could see wrapping paper clad items in there. But, I remembered what had happened the last time I’d made a remark, and said absolutely nothing. Not one little joke or comment. I went back to getting ready for first period, thinking that Henry had left, when I heard him say: “Thanks, Mrs. Smith. Thank you for letting me keep my stuff in here.”
“Oh, no problem, Henry. Anytime!” I responded, perhaps a little too brightly.
“It’s a big help,” he continued, his face flushed and his eyes full of tears.
He turned to get a tissue, blow his nose, compose himself. I found myself growing very still, sensing that Henry had arrived at some important moment, when he was finally ready to tell me something he felt I ought to know. Something that he’d built up a reservoir of trust allowing him to do so.
“I go between my mom and dad’s house, and sometimes I don’t know where I’ll be until they text me in school. So it helps to have all the stuff I need…so thanks for letting me keep it here,” he said, all in a rush. And then he was gone.
I took a good look at the bags Henry had left. How does a sixth grader pack for the unexpected, every day? How does a sixth grader prepare for the unexpected, every day? How does a child cope with a world that is in flux every day? What must it feel like to be caught between forever colliding worlds? Henry came into focus for me in that moment. I’ve had flashes of what I thought had been insight into this child through his writing, and through his interactions. But, it wasn’t until that moment that I understood with any clarity the world this child inhabits, and the troubles he must be experiencing. There are so many stories in our classrooms – most of which we can only guess at.