Sunday, April 6, 2008

Teaching, Learning, Touching Lives

It was yesterday. The morning after one of the most hellish nights of my life (of which I am amassing quite an astonishing number). On tap for the day? Substitute teaching. Not kindergarten. High school biology. More teenagers. There was no way to back out, so I bucked up. They had requested a strong, good sub, one who could command respect the moment upon walking into the room. When a request like that comes in it strikes fear into the hearts of a sub for there must be an ominous reason for the teacher to request such.

The agenda: an exam for the first two period classes, an in-class assignment for the last period class. The school operates on a block schedule of four periods per day. The first was my prep period.

I introduced myself to the kids who did not know me. Many of them do i.e. "Hey, you’re Suke’s mom!" or "Aren’t you Reggie’s mom (my son’s nickname)?" It began with the usual moaning and groaning about an exam, the teacher including material not appearing on the study notes, the test being too hard, yada yada yada. So far, so good. Made sure the seating chart had been adhered to, took roll, gave the instructions for the test and the kids dug in.

Although some kids took longer with their exam, the long block period provided more than enough time to finish it and then allowed for time left over. As they finished, they could read, write (not text), or relax. Cautiously, I made a decision to allow the kids to talk quietly amongst themselves.

Surprisingly, many of the kids approached me to talk or asked me questions from the groups they were in, apparently curious about me. By the end of the period, the kids were engaged in conversation with me and the topics had run the gamut. We discussed the value of education, setting priorities, drugs, alcohol, violence, the media, my background, their backgrounds, their opinions, relationships, their language, some of their police records, their dreams, their mistakes. These were the discussions that took place throughout the day.

The second class proceeded as had the first and when the exam was completed some of the students came to my desk to talk to me individually or we talked as a group.

During the last half of that class, a student I’d had in the horticulture class last school year was passing the classroom , saw me and stopped to say hello. I’ve always affectionately called him "Holey" because of the number of piercings he has. He loves it. He was one of those students that gets into your heart and doesn’t leave it. We talked for awhile about his life, school, his future, he is a senior. This student has not had a stellar academic career but if anyone takes the time to know him, they see he has an amazing heart and incredible potential but he doesn’t apply himself. Upon finishing, he gave me a hug, turned to the assembled group and said "Ms. Stephanie is the only person who can read me the riot act and do it in such a sweet voice that I don’t even know that I’ve been reemed out because I’ve listened to every word she said."
Another student which I’d not met before began talking with me. When I learned his name, I began to put two and two together and figured out that he was the young man involved in a situation with the police that I’d just heard about moments before from a phone conversation. I also realized he was the friend my son had spoken of previously. This young man had a penchant for foolishness. He loved to put videos on UTube showing him and others doing dangerous, gross, sickening stunts. One of them resulted in a run-in with the law a few months ago. He discussed how all of that made him feel. He was embarrassed at what he used to do, ashamed of the police situation and has now turned over a new leaf. He is extremely creative with video technology, production and has a great imagination. To use it all productively, he is now going to do some videoing for me for a non-profit which I head up and take care of the computer work for me. His excitement at my interest in his ability and the trust he felt from me warmed my heart.

The third class wasn’t exactly thrilled about their assignment but I convinced them they were better off than the other two classes which had had an exam. The complaining ceased quickly :) Their assignment was completed in very short order (except for one student) and again I decided to allow them to talk amongst themselves.

Again, we discussed the stories of their lives, topics of which were sad such as the death of Donnie and why he committed suicide (which we now know and it is horrible) or exciting such as their plans for the future or thoughtful such as the challenges they face everyday and what their response to them should be.

The day was perfect. Not a single student acted up, misspoke, or gave me a single bit of trouble. Not even a suggestion of it. I couldn’t figure out why they had made such a specific request for the type of sub? Why the concern? These kids were phenomenal.

As the last bell rang, my teenage son "Reggie" came to find me and asked how my day went. For you see, he KNEW the kids that were in my classes. He was grinning, thinking "I’ll bet they ran you ragged and gave you a really bad time. Oh, this is going to be GOOD!". When I shared with him the happenings of my day and the interactions I’d had with specific students, he was dumbfounded. He made me repeat the names of the kids I’d referred to, telling me I was mistaken as to their identity. His final response was "Wow. That is not like those kids at all. Their behavior is ALWAYS bad and they live to eat substitute teachers up, making them miserable." I laughed and told him he must not really know the sophomores because none of them were like that!

The end of the day. So much learning had taken place. But not only the learning of biology. I learned much from my students. Maybe they learned a small something from me. More importantly, I think, was the sharing that took place. Sharing of ideas, feelings, opinions, stories, hugs . . . and hearts. Kids will talk, if we would just listen. Their stories are too many to share here but know this, you would love to hear them :) . All of them: sad, funny, thoughtful.
God, I love those kids. The rascally ones, notably :) I needed to be there, in that place, at that time, yesterday, with those kids because they taught me something valuable: there is hope. There is hope for these kids no matter what they have done or where they have come from because it is about where they can go from this point on if they choose. There is hope for this town. There is hope for the future.

On the way out to the car, with my son still grinning in disbelief at the kids and his mom, my heart is filled with love of which I told him. I felt encouraged. For these kids had shown me what I need to know . . . there is hope, hope for my own two sons.

And as for the type of substitute teachers they need for these kids? Maybe they just need one with a heart . . . and ears.