Students who are frequently among the most memorable are the LOUD ones, or so you would think. And I’ve had plenty of LOUD students. Sometimes, they are the ones who earn the nicknames like “Squirrel-Boy” or “Chipmunk-Boy.” I once had a student who tried to rest his feet on his desk. I asked him not to out of courtesy to the next student who would sit at the desk. This student then suggested that he was going to keep his feet up in the air for the entire class. I told him to “go for it.” For a couple of minutes, he literally held his leg almost over his head as a way of trying to prove to me that he could do it.
He was also someone who used to sing every class. And talked non-stop.
He was friendly. Nice. CHATTY! I have lots of memories about this young man. Lots of memories. Not all of them bad. Not all of them good. But lots of memories.
The quiet students, though, are the ones who frequently surprise me. Duh.
When students suddenly get quiet, my Mommy-senses start tingling. Something’s amiss or Something’s afoot….Any person who has been a parent, a surrogate parent, babysitter, child care worker, or human being in the presence of children knows exactly what I’m talking about. When kids get quiet, it means one of several things:
1. The house is empty and you can now start to party (sleep) and hope to God that the kids are not off in some crazy place, somewhere, preparing to initiate the Apocalypse (and if they, please let it be after you have five minutes of sleep and where the neighbors can’t see).
2. The kids are actually asleep which means that you can now either do the chores that have been neglected for the last decade, do something on your own that you have wanted to do for the last decade but couldn’t squeeze together those five quiet seconds, or….go to sleep.
3. The kids are up to no good and you have approximately five seconds to discover where the kids are and thwart the no-good-behaviors before the Apocalypse is initiated in full view of your neighbors and their Twitter accounts. Because no one is on Facebook anymore…at least according to my students.
Yup, the quiet kids. They’re the dangerous ones.
They’re the ones most likely to break your heart.
Like Alex. I received an email today from a student who graduated two days ago. He was the quiet one, the one who sat in the corner and did all of his work and was generally the perfect student. If I gave an assignment, it was done before I blinked. And it was generally done to as close to perfection as a writing assignment being given to an obnoxious English teacher who thrives on editing (note, my husband refers to my editing style as “ruthless.” I consider this to be a high compliment).
Alex was a great student, and I saw his greatness on the first day. But I always felt like I wasn’t engaging him because…he was quiet.
In this same class, I had multiple talkative students, at least one of whom I made wonderful connections that truly colored my memories of this class. And Alex was there, in this class, occupying his quiet corner and letting the different discussions wash over him.
I cared about Alex. He was my student. He was a great student and I could see this greatness throughout all of his assignments, but I never could gauge how well I was teaching him given that he is an incredibly intelligent young man from my school’s gifted and talented program. So I hoped that he was content with what I was teaching him (if I was teaching him because he really is that smart) and continued going through the year’s cycle.
And then, today, I opened my email and skimmed through the list of senders and subject lines.
Spam, junk, junk, spam, generic, spam, junk, something for me, something for me, Alex, spam, junk, something for me.
Delete the spam and junk. Check the generic that might be applicable to me. Delete. Read the emails that are sort of for me. Follow through on the needs, the requests, the information. Move to appropriate folders, delete the rest.
Read Alex’s email.
Start over again.
Alex wrote me an email in which he told me, well, I guess everything. All the words that he had kept within his mind and his precious heart were spilled out across my screen and I had to re-read the email not once and not twice but at least three times.
Because, in a way, I kind of felt like I had failed Alex. I didn’t know that I really taught him anything because after twelve years of English education, the thirteenth year can either be honing one’s skills that were previously learned, learning skills that were never taught (not in Alex’s case), or listening to a duplicate of lessons and skills that have been taught for the last twelve–going on thirteen–years.
I will not write everything here that Alex wrote to me. Because it is mine and I have it tucked away in a folder called “Feel Goods” that I will read every now and then when I have had a horrible day and I need to be reminded of why I teach in the first place. And, yes, those days happen. Thankfully, I don’t have them frequently.
But, what I can say is that Alex validated actions and choices I have made which might seem a bit wonky. This year, I bought blank cards and wrote notes to my students. I haven’t done this in a couple of years and I’ve only done this a handful of times. But, this year was too important, too spectacular to let it slide away without me having one last moment to tell my students how much they have touched my life and affected me in a positive way. So I bought a box of fifty cards figuring that I was going to use maybe half of them. I couldn’t stop writing.
I mentally walked around my classroom and saw different faces and thought about the students’ papers or what they told me in classroom discussions or private conversations and I realized I had to write more notes to more than just twenty or so people. So I used up one box and ran to Hobby Lobby to buy another box. And I used up all of those cards too.
And I still have more notes to write to students because I ran out of cards and time and my hand was cramping and my handwriting was so bad that my students struggled with what I had to say.
I once wrote a note to a student in my first year of public teaching. My mom thought I was being careless and possibly jeopardizing my career. And when I write notes to my students, I always hear my mom admonishing me against writing these personal notes because it is breaching the distinct line between teacher and student.
Most times, I stand on my side of the line and smile at my students. Sometimes, I will stand on the line and reach over, tentatively giving a hug or offering a bit of love. Frequently, I leap to the other side and will hold a student as he (yes, he) or she sobs due to the destruction of his/her world. And that is when my name changes from “Mrs….” to “Momma.”
For one glorious year, my house was nicknamed the “Refugee Camp” because I had a continual stream of former students coming to the house for advice, for consolation, for a place where they can let down their guards and just breathe without fear of judgement.
So, back to Alex, I wrote him a note….Short, something in which I told him my pride in him and my appreciation for his excellence. Because he is excellent (note, not past tense…he is an excellent young man). And I presented him his card before walking through a sea of four hundred seniors and delivered my notes and a couple of gifts because they had touched my life that much.
Every note was different. Every note was signed “Love you! Mean it!” Because I truly do love my students. And I truly do mean it.
Alex’s email is precious. Because he broke his silence and gave me incredibly beautiful words that reinforce all the decisions I have made to be the teacher I am. He validated my choices to write notes and be sincere and open about the fact that my students are powerfully influential people in my life. I might not know a lot about pedagogy and methodology. I can’t remember what half the big words applicable to education mean. But I can tell you that a simple note to amazing people is the best teaching tool I have ever used.
Because in Alex’s eloquent email, I learned and re-learned the lessons that I have been learning for over twenty years. And I will take his lessons and use them in my classroom for the next nineteen years.
He might have been silent for most of the year. But his words are more impactful than he could ever imagine.