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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Her problem is…

She paced back and forth trying to hold back tears. She reached for a tissue off her desk and wiped the corner of her eyes. "It just sucks, G". (That's what my co-worker calls me, like in the movie Top Gun all teachers have call signs). "It sucks so bad", she said. I sat there and gave her a weak smile, nodding my head ever so slightly in agreement. At first I thought she had just become overwhelmed with being a teacher. Many work 12 hour days during the week and even more on the weekend. They leave their kids in day care as they attempt to get caught up with an endless list of tasks many of which only have a peripheral relationship to education. I also thought maybe an administrator had come down hard on her because a t wasn’t crossed on a lesson plan or she had dare write a referral. It turns out her problem was eve worse.

She came and sat across from me and put her head down on the table, a tear suspended on her cheek for just a second before it fell. "I am trying so hard, I want these kids to succeed so bad", she said, before closing her eyes and going silent. I nodded this was a sentiment I am practically all teachers has, after all we didn’t join the profession to be rich and recently the prestige of being a teacher had been severely tarnished as they had become the face and unjustly so of all that is wrong in education as parents, the government and policy makers had all gotten a pass.

I reached over to stroke her hair to give her some reassurance that it was going to be okay, that things were going to work out; but at the last moment, I stopped because I knew I could give no guarantee. Teachers are overwhelmed these days and there is no end in sight, but so to our kids as more and more who can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel are choosing to drop out. The allure of the street trumps the hopelessness that many kids feel at school. I wanted desperately to reassure my friend that her problem would work out...oh, and what is my friend’s problem? My friend's problem is that she cares.

I sat there looking at her. Her breathing was a little labored as she tried to hold back tears. I sat there wishing I had a magic wand or a time machine because I knew whatever I said, even if it was earnest, heartfelt and sincere, wouldn't be able to change things - not now, anyway. Even practical sentiment such as, 'move on', or 'all you can do is hope for the best', seemed inappropriate. It was made even more difficult because there I was, experiencing her pain first-person.

She has a student in her class that for some reason stood out to her, that she took an extra interest in. For whatever reason, this student was special to her and her doing right by this student was exceptionally important. Of course, she put time and effort into all of her students, but with this one she went above and beyond. For a while, they were making progress. This was a child who, for much of their young life, was unappreciated and uncared for - and now, finally, they had someone in their corner who would 'go to bat for them', 'go the extra mile', and all the other metaphors you can think of. This was working, too, because for a while, this child had prospered. For a while anyways.
But now, the student was gone; a snap decision, an impulsive moment had seen this student drop out, and this act devastated my friend. "Why didn't [they] come to me before quitting; do [they] know how hard it is going to be? What did I do wrong..." and a thousand other questions were swirling around my friend's mind, numbing it, overwhelming her. Sadly, these were questions I had no answers for; and, to be honest, I wasn’t even sure there were answers to be had.

I had not just sympathy for her, but empathy; in my life, I have also felt the same way a few times before - like when my mom was sick, or when a relationship that was special and important to me ended - and, yes, despite my best effort on the occasions I had let a student or two into my heart, as well, only to see them make bad choice after bad choice. I had recovered from those events, (well - as much as anybody ever really recovers from them) and I had no insight as to why. I mean, I didn't miss my mother any less, and I was still disappointed about this or that, but then one night I went to bed sad, and the next morning when I woke up, things were a little bit better and then a little bit better and then...

I just sat there with her silently until she looked up; her face was a little red and her hair was in her face. I reached over and pushed her bangs back, giving her a sympathetic smile as I did so. She gently grabbed my hand and leaned her head against it for a few seconds. She then sat back wiping her eyes. She looked at me and smiled back. I could tell it wasn’t a real smile though, just one of those fake ones we give so that people won’t know how upset we really are. (That never works, by the way).

A few moments later, I had to leave, as the planning period we shared was coming to an end. I walked to the door and before exiting; I turned and looked at her. I thought to myself, 'if I had a magic wand I would wave it; if I had a time machine, I would loan it to her, and if I had words that didn't involve clichés about time, I would say them'. But, despite my empty bag of tricks, I felt like I had to say or do something. After a moment, I said her name, to get her attention, and then for a moment we just stared at each other. I then smiled at her and nodded my head, my intent to at least let her know I cared. Which makes me rethink what I wrote, above - because if caring is the problem, well then, I have it too. And so do most teachers. It is a problem I think more of us should have. I think she got that as she smiled and nodded back; she seemed better, even if it was just a little bit, and just for a second. I then walked to my class, hopeful that her day would improve and if so, despite my silence, glad that I was able to play a part in that.

I wonder if all the teachers in all the schools who experience similar happenings (because many will - we’re losing so many kids a year to the streets and to hopelessness) have a friend who will give them a nod, too? Maybe it’s time society stopped pointing the fingers at teachers and gave them a nod as well.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

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