It has been four months since my last post. I just don't know where the time and my initiative have gone. The return to school this year was fraught with anxiety, palpable and exhausting anxiety. As much as I don't like admitting it, I let it get the best of me.
I started the new school year with massive workplace changes. Many of our special education teachers retired or moved on to other jobs. Missing the familiarity of my co-workers as well as the loss of my touchstone, was difficult. My daughter went back to college and left another gaping hole. My son began his senior year of high school and a year of lasts was looming. I had to center myself and that took some doing.
Fast forward to December first (rabbit, rabbit). On the first, we had a two-hour delay, which was glorious. I slip-slid my way to work and as is my norm, did a lot of thinking. My route to an idea is often twisty-turny! I began thinking about the Christmas season, which led to Christmas movies, that segued to A Christmas Carol. I moved on to Charles Dickens and his works. A Tale of Two Cities came to mind. I finally arrived at the inspiration for this post; A Tale of Two Teachers! (Disclaimer; I use the term "teachers" inclusively referring to those who work with children in a school setting and mean no offense to SLPs). My thoughts turned to how what a child hears from a teacher is so powerful. I wonder if teachers realize how their actions, words, and even facial expressions make a lasting mark on children. I began to recall two very different teachers in my own story.
Here are my tales. Fifty years ago, I was a little girl wanting to be just like all the other children. I wanted the nice snacks and Buster Brown shoes and pretty bows in my hair. I wanted to be noticed by my teacher and looked upon with kind eyes. It wasn't always that way and one day in particular it was the complete opposite.
We were lined up by the back door of the classroom, from which we exited. This was our daily routine. Each day, someone would announce to our teacher, "Sister ____, the buses are here," and we would be dismissed. One day, before dismissal we were asked to sing The Lollipop Tree. I suppose our teacher was having a bad day, or perhaps we weren't singing to her satisfaction, or maybe she was just not a kind person. To a six year old none of those things mattered. What did matter, was that I announced the buses had arrived and she grabbed me by the ear, pushed me to the wall, and said with anger so rich, "If I want to know that the buses are here, I'll ask." I was stunned and terrified, embarrassed and confused. Typically my response to tricky situations is FREEZE. This day it was FLIGHT. I ran out that back door as fast as my six year old legs could go. I got on my bus and found my older brothers and wept. As a child, I thought my Mother did nothing to support me in this situation. She calmed me down and never said another word. As I grew, I surmised she must have advocated for me, because when I went to school the next day (full of fear), the event was not discussed. Apparently, my composition book had fallen from my blue vinyl book bag during my getaway. Sister _____ asked who it belonged to aloud (it had my name on it) and with trepidation, I raised my hand. She handed me the book and it was done. To this day I am convinced my Mother addressed the issue.
This next story recounts a very different kind of teacher; a kind and sensitive young man who was highly in tune with his students. I remember so many details of my sixth grade year, for instance, when our teacher announced the end of the Vietnam War. I remember, thinking I was funny and putting guinea pig poop on his chair (and having to write an apology). I remember being shunned by the pretty and rich girls. At this point in my life, our household had changed significantly. It was not always terrific. My younger brother and I were often left to fend for ourselves and our clothes and hygiene reflected that. It was that dreaded time of year for many, the day we got our school pictures packages. I had tried to look pretty, putting my greasy hair in pigtails and wearing a smelly sweater vest. Mrs. ___ had come into our class and was fawning over all the girls' photos, all the girls that is except me. I saw my teacher look at her, establish eye contact with me, and look back at her. He then said, and I will never forget it, "Did you see Annie's picture? She looks beautiful." Mrs. ___ dutifully looked, gave a half-hearted nod, and continued her praise of the class beauties. I shrank into myself further, solidifying the poor self image I would carry with me for years. What I also carried with me, to this day, is the awareness that this teacher possessed of his students, the kindness he had expressed to me and to any others who were willing to recognize it. Many years later, I found him via Facebook and I recounted this tale, thanking him for his sensitivity. His response was as kind as it had been years earlier, "It was because you WERE beautiful."
You can imagine how I wept when I read that. I'll admit I still do, because what teachers say to their students matters. The sidelong glances, the absence of eye contact, ignoring a question, anger, belittling, and the most grievous, sarcasm, all matter. In my 35 years in the schools I have seen teachers gesturally mocking students, telling a student to stand in the trash can, ignoring them, and more. It matters. Those words will likely be remembered for a lifetime. I know I remember, the good and the bad, but for a long time the bad memories were louder.
Which teacher would you rather be? Both have influenced me, one who I strive to be more like and one I eschew. As we start a new year, I challenge every adult working with students to be mindful of what they say, how they say it, and the body language they use. I hope to be the "teacher" a student reaches out to 45 years later and says, "Thank you.