March Slice of Life Challenge: March 2, 2014 – a story of bags and belonging

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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.

be kind

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25 thoughts on “March Slice of Life Challenge: March 2, 2014 – a story of bags and belonging

  1. Oh what a story and a burden Henry faces. His maturity is premature and in a way unfair. He is lucky you provide a place to rest his bags and his burdens as he prepares for the unexpected. My heart goes out to him.

  2. Tara, you are incredible! Henry so needs the stability of life with you when he is in such a state of turmoil. You tell his story so well that we all can relate to times we may have made an assumption only to find out there’s more to the story. Your final graphic is such a good reminder.

  3. By the end of this piece, my eyes were filled with tears. Such a touching story. It fills me with both sorrow and hope. Sorrow, knowing that there are so many students out there like Henry who carry heavy burdens. And hope, knowing that there are compassionate teachers out there like you who help to make those burdens a little lighter.

  4. I keep a collection of bags in my room, too. Like you, I am sometimes amazed at what my students live through outside of school. I wonder how they keep going. Thank goodness, he had a kind teacher in you that he could count on and trust.

  5. This is such a powerful story! It is a great reminder that our kids are full of stories and pain and that all it requires sometimes is just for us to be there. To that ear to listen or that place to store their stuff.

  6. So many times kids are dealing with so much more than we realize–I had a sense of where your story was heading, although I was a little relieved that he had a home for his belongings, albeit multiple homes. I haven’t had to deal with homelessness yet, but I suspect it’s a matter of time. Tara, you are such a special teacher, across so many domains. I love reading your posts when you are writing about your interactions with your students. I really do.

  7. Wow, what an incredible piece. It sounds like Henry is an extraordinary person. I am glad he has you in his life- what a wonderful role model! When I hear about kids like this, I get so excited for the future to see how they turn out, and what amazing things they’ll be continuing to do.

  8. Henry is so lucky to have you for a teacher. Thanks for reminding us that all of our students carry stories that we may never know. I love that your refer to your former students as alumni. It is fun to have them drop by. It’s one of the perks of teaching 6th grade!

  9. Oh gosh, what a poignant story. I’m so glad he has you to trust and depend on. I love that quote you included at the end. I have to remind myself of that!

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  11. Wow.. this a very powerful short story. Good for you for gaining Henry’s trust- I’m sure it wasn’t very easy for him to let you in on his secret. Glad to see you back this year!

  12. And when we do those small things, like your storage corner, we don’t even realize how very much it means, do we? Oh Tara, I’ve had students who are shuffled around like this to the point that we suddenly made a schedule where they only had to read and do their math homework at home. Every other assignment was made room for at school. I’ve even tried working with the parents to no avail. They’re too caught in their own challenges to see what that kind of life is doing. Thank you for reminding us all to take a little more time, to think a little further. (Love that last quote.)

  13. I loved the last quote…it’s so true. We, as teachers have the power to make a burden lighter and to accept our students, no matter what their burdens are. Thank you for your post.

  14. This is so moving, Tara. As others have said, Henry’s situation is so unfair to him. How lucky he is to have you to provide him with a sense of stability he so desperately needs. Thank you for sharing the quote, too. I’ve seen it many times, but it always bears repeating.

  15. Your sensitivity in adjusting your comments to Henry and just letting him be must have comforted him. It is not a small thing that he could trust you with the difficulty of his current situation. We never do know so kindness and love are always best practices.

  16. Oh so sad that this kid is in flux all the time. It was nice of you to give him a physical space and emotional space until he was ready to tell you the circumstances. So often we don’t know the whole story and our part of what we do is extend kindness. What an awesome post.

  17. Your story really helps me see how everyone has a story to tell. You were so kind to him, and sensitive. He knew you were a kind person and you would listen to him. If I didn’t know better I’d think you were a cat.
    All the best,
    xo
    Love Pooh, ( I wish you were my teacher.)

  18. I read every word hoping the end would be a happy one, but knowing it would not. Again and again, children are victims. Wonderful that you could be there for him, even in such a seemingly small way. Love the quote, too. So true!

  19. This post was so touching and built beautifully. It is those moments of clarity that remind us of the realities of others. I don’t know how a sixth grader does that, but Henry does it, and somehow he will be strong because of it. He will be strong because of people like you who are just there, don’t question or judge, but are present for the moment he is ready to crack open his heart to them.

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