Slice of Life Tuesday:Where do we, the teachers, fit into a student’s self definition?


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We crowded around the computer lab that second-to-last-period of the day, waiting impatiently for it to be unlocked so that we could get back to researching our Washington D.C. projects. My sixth graders were chatting away, mostly about the project but also about the NFL playoffs, the disgusting thing someone had done at lunch, who was signing up for the ski trip, and locker drama: all the essential ingredients of a sixth grader’s life.  I was enjoying all this noise and movement, even though we were in the library and this was highly inappropriate, but sometimes just looking at the antics of sixth graders is joyful.

Then I saw David (not, of course, his real name).  David had been in my class years ago, one of those kids everyone tells you to “keep an eye on”, as in “keep an eye on that one, he may look like a nice kid, but…”.  And, to a certain point, I was right to have been warned; David did not always use his best judgement, if there was a commotion at the back of the classroom during reading time, chances were that David had something to do with it.  He was careless about his work, and even more  often focused on his work.  There was always, it seemed, something else that David would rather be thinking of.

But, he was charming, too.  He knew when he was in the wrong, and was quick to both admit guilt as well as offer a sincere apology.  I chose to believe that those apologies were sincere, and so I accepted the apology, meted out consequences, and then we both moved on.  We had a happy time in sixth grade, but then I could see signs of trouble: disengaged parents, confrontational relationships with teachers and students, a certain inappropriate maturity when it came to flirtatious behavior with the girls in his class and in the grades above.

By the time he had graduated from eighth grade, David had acquired a reputation; he was a “bad” kid, even the mention of his name would often produce an eye roll here, a heavy sigh there.  No one, it seemed,  predicted good things for David in high school.  And they were right, in a way, for things went awry very quickly for David.

Our middle school and high school share different wings of the same building, and so I  see my alumni from time to time.   For the next few years, whenever I’d see David in the hallways, he avoided making eye contact.  His whole aspect seemed to have changed, become hardened and closed off.  I heard stories from other kids and faculty about drinking and fights.  One day,  there was the sad news that David had lost a parent.  I was not able to make the funeral, but I sent him a letter asking him to stop by his old room.  He never came, and for a long time, our paths never crossed..

Then, late on a school day afternoon, there he was among a huddle of high school kids in the our library.   As my kids trooped into the now unlocked room, David looked up, saw me, and turned away.   Stung,  I  turned back to my students, and focused on settling them in.   About halfway through the period, David walked in.  He was in a rush, but he wanted to say hi.  He was trying out for a college team that weekend, “Wish me luck!” he said. A quick bear hug, and five sentences later, he was gone, but I had seen a glimpse of the old David

When I saw him lumbering into school the next day, however, it was back to the David that is – the David that he seems to have become.  I was thinking about all this the other day, when I read a post Kylene Beers had shared on Facebook with the title” If you can only read  one article this week, READ THIS. READ THIS. READ THIS.”  So I did:

Sometimes The ‘Tough Teen’ Is Quietly Writing Stories by Matt De La Pena:

The gist of the article is the way in which one teacher, with one book, turned Matt’s intellectual life around, an intervention which proved to be just the key to unlocking his creative writing life. Matt was able to do the same, in turn, with his father.  Reading, he writes, can make you whole.

The part that stuck with me on Monday night as I read the article, however, was this section, in which he writes about a school visit where he meets Joshua, another David:

The principal then pointed out a particular student, seated near the back. “That one’s a real instigator,” he told me. “But don’t worry, we’ll remove him if he starts acting up. It wouldn’t be the first time Joshua blew an opportunity like this.”

As the librarian introduced me to the school, I studied this kid. Joshua. He was bigger than everyone else. He had neck tattoos and a shaved head. He kept smacking the kid next to him in the back of the head and laughing. A nearby teacher shushed him.

I started my talk by describing my own early struggles in school. I was nearly held back in second grade because I “couldn’t read,” which shattered my confidence. For a long time after that experience I viewed myself as unintelligent — and the most difficult definition to break free from, I told the students, is self-definition.

Joshua began to pay attention.

That set me to thinking about David.  Somewhere along the way, through his actions and his interactions, David had arrived at his own self definition. You could see it in the expression he wore on his face, the way he carried himself every day – wary, suspicious,  prepared for trouble, and prepared (if necessary) to BE the trouble.   How much time does it take, I wonder, for a David or a Joshua to arrive at self definition.   What can we do to help them break free?  And what do we do to make it impossible to break free?

In Matt De La Pena’s story, Joshua is inspired enough by what he hears, to share his writing with Matt.  But there is no happy and tidy ending to the story – Joshua drops out of school and Matt never hears from him again.  Did Joshua find a way to break free? Will David?

So here I am, at the end of a long school day, thinking about David as I look at a photograph of him on our memory wall.  The picture is a bit faded, and the corners are curled in.  Even so, David’s smile is just as exuberant and joyful as it was the afternoon it was taken as we gathered together for a writing celebration.  Break free, David…break free…


20 thoughts on “Slice of Life Tuesday:Where do we, the teachers, fit into a student’s self definition?

  1. I connected with this a little from some of the Between The World and Me writing, and then an old quote I can’t remember about being stuck on a shelf, never getting off, that shelf that others helped you get on, but you kept yourself there too. I hope he breaks free, too, Tara. Obviously from him turning to you that small bit, you’ve touched him. I hope he will be okay. I also wrote a little about this from an article where this man teaches writing to prisoners. If you read it, you’ll see what he says about how writing is helping. Thanks for this poignant post.

  2. Hopes are with David. He definitely needs more people like you in his life… people who can help him see that he is not who others say he is but someone who has so much to contribute.

  3. Tara you have such a gift of sharing your story. Every teacher has a David and I am so thankful when you heard “trouble” your heart is always and continues to be open. My David is in high school too I wonder how’s he is doing?

  4. I once got a very poignant piece of advice from my father, “You can’t save them all.” When I read your piece, I think of all the Davids I have wanted to save. We can only do so much, but the rest is up to them.

    With that said, I will not stop trying to do my best for these kinds of kids. I can remember long talks in the hallway when we’d both end up in tears. The kids I teach know that I love them, but I have to remember that I cannot save them all. I won’t stop trying. And neither will you.

  5. What a moving post Tara. Thanks for the link – I missed it somehow and want to read it. It is those Davids we really have to keep reaching out to, even if we are rebuffed. We never can tell when we have influenced a student. Here’s wishing David and all the other Davids find someone to care and support them as you obviously do.

  6. These are the students that enter our hearts and refuse to leave because we never give up hoping they will find their way. I hope your “David” will touch base with you in the future.

  7. Tara, I have had similar students. Some have broken free and some, unfortunately, have not. I hope David will find the teacher, the words, the book that breaks him free. Your concern and love for him shines through this piece.

  8. I have a David this year. He is on that road and I’m trying to figure it out. There has to be a reason why they go on that path. Changing that can happen. You never know what might make the difference. Hope your David makes the team.

  9. This slice is a gift. It is a gift to every teacher who wants or needs the reminder that kids are not their reputations or self-definitions. And it is a gift to the kids who struggle with either or both. As a mom to a kids who even at 9 years old has some of these struggles with definition. . . I just want to thank you and hug every and any adult/teacher/friend who sees the real person in any and every kid they look at — because that’s what every kid deserves. Thank you.

  10. David is lucky to have been in your class, Tara. I’m sure you did everything you could have to help him break free. And although it’s hard to accept, some kids are beyond our reach. I hope David finds his way.

  11. Tara, in every teacher’s life there are those Davids that you wish you could save. They are those whose lives need order, redemption, and a supportive guide. While we cannot guide them all to a safe haven we can continue to try. That is the calling of a teacher. Your post reminded me of the many Davids I tried to nurture. You line break free is a wish for all. Maybe that rainbow scooper can become the symbol of what we hope they can use in their travels.

  12. Such a thoughtful slice. The fact that David felt comfortable dropping by and asking for your good wishes speaks volumes about the relationship you have with him. Here’s hope for all the Davids in our classrooms to break free. Even though we can’t save them all, we can never stop hoping.

  13. Someone told me once that childhood is a roller coaster ride and there’s only room in the car for one person. I believe that. This piece really touched me Tara. My eyes welled up. It’s so hard not to feel so much for these children. There ours after all.

  14. Pingback: Links I Loved Last Week: A Round-Up of Online Reading 1/17/16 | the dirigible plum

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