When I think about what it means to be a teacher, I think of one special child. This little girl came to me halfway through my first year of teaching. She was a handful! She wore me ragged from the beginning of the day until the end of the day. I tried to teach her our routines and procedures, but we just couldn't quite find our groove. She was immature and impulsive but with the frisky eagerness of a puppy. Academically she was a challenge too! She was so far behind everyone else, but she'd rush into her work with careless enthusiasm.
At the end of the year I recommended her for retention. Throughout the summer, whenever I thought of her, I wavered between hoping they put her back in my class and hoping they'd put her in the other kindergarten class!
Then, in August, I happened to be helping out one day at enrollment when she and her mother came in. She bounced right up to me, happily chattering away. I greeted her and then remembered that she had a birthday in August. Did she have a good birthday? Did she get any presents? I asked with a smile on my face, waiting to hear her exuberant response.
Her little shoulders slumped and her whole mood changed. No, she replied softly, she hadn't gotten anything for her birthday, she hadn't been good enough.
I think my surprise must have shown on my face. No presents at all? I looked at her mama for confirmation and she matter-of-factually stated "She didn't get nothing because she wouldn't behave. I told her and she wouldn't listen."
Now to my mind, there is nothing that a six year old could do to warrant a punishment like not getting any presents for her birthday. I felt a new sense of compassion and empathy for her. She was such a cheerful, enthusiastic little thing, in spite of a pretty tough home life. Suddenly I was admiring things that had driven me to distraction the year before.
Well, she was in my class again that year as luck would have it. She had matured quite a bit over the summer and was frequently my helper that year - explaining to all the "newbies" our routines and procedures. About ten times a day I would hear "We did that last year too, huh Mrs. Knopf?" or "Your read that last year too, huh Mrs. Knopf?" or "We played that game last year too, huh Mrs. Knopf?" There were days when I swore that if I heard another "huh Mrs. Knopf?" I'd crack!
She continued to be sweet and enthusiastic, even when her home life was going south. She'd tell me things that would make me so sad, but she accepted them as a fact of life. Mama went to jail for a few months and she lived with grandmother during that time. During those months she was happy as a clam - consistently clean, well fed and well dressed for the first time since I met her.
Then mama got out of jail. Mama and grandma started having fights. Little girl would hide in the closet when the police would come. She'd tell me these things at school and I'd want to howl at the injustice of it.
Eventually mama and little girl ended up at a shelter. That was during our Teddy Bear week. Little girl was still eager to learn and happy to throw herself into every activity. Until it came time to bring in teddy bears from home for our picnic and she quietly crept up and whispered in my ear "They don't got no toys at the shelter, Mrs. Knopf." Of course I made sure she had a bear, but I couldn't shake the thought of her in a shelter without a single toy of her own. I ended up slipping a doll into her backpack one day, but within a week her mama had "left it" at someone's house.
A few weeks later, as I was walking into our building, the secretary stopped me to give me a heads up. Little girl had moved and wasn't coming back. Mama had taken her to another city, we weren't sure where. I don't know how I got through that day. I cried myself to sleep every night for a week straight. I was worried about her, worried that her mama wasn't taking care of her, worried about what kind of living situation she was in, but most of all, worried about her new teacher.
You see, I worried that the new teacher wouldn't understand her and love her. That she wouldn't know the background and wouldn't understand why little girl did the things she did. That the little behaviors that were frustrating/annoying came from a place of fear and hurt. If little girl occasionally drove me to distraction even when I loved the heck out of her, how would that new teacher react? I worried that the one place where little girl always felt safe - school - would no longer be a sanctuary for her.
And then I realized that I couldn't do anything about it. I'd just have to trust and hope and pray that little girl would always find teachers who loved her and believed in her. And in return, I'd have to love and believe in every child that came through my door. Because just as I loved and missed and worried about my little girl, there could be another teacher missing and worrying about the new student coming to my class. So I've made myself a promise that I will treat every child as I want my little girl to be treated. That my classroom will be a safe place for them and that I will love them as much as I'm able.
Little girl broke my heart that year, I still tear up thinking about her. I'd give almost anything to hear her say "huh Mrs. Knopf?" just one more time. But, she left me a better, more loving teacher. She left me with the true realization that all students are precious to somebody - even if it's just their teacher.
And, just to prove that sometimes prayers get answered, a few months after little girl left a teacher friend from another building came up to me and casually mentioned "I got one of your students the other day." This teacher is the most patient, loving and kind person I know by the way. I racked my brain trying to think which student she was talking about. Then it dawned on me...little girl had landed in the one classroom I would have handpicked for her!