I went into my daughter’s classroom for a visit last week. She teaches a loop, so she has her students for two years. Now it’s June of her second year with these lovely sixth graders, and everyone is tired, emotional, and ready to move on. I brought Kate’s kids in to the classroom to say goodbye.
Naturally, just stepping into the school building where I taught for more than two decades had me nostalgic.
All the way home that afternoon, I thought about “my” kids from over the years. Here are a few of the stories that have been on my mind.
The Bombs Below
One year I had a boy in my class who had spent about half of his ten years of life in his native Pakistan. His family had moved back and forth from the U.S. to Pakistan a couple of times, and were intending to return again. My student went through the year with one foot here and one over there.
In the early fall of that fifth grade year, we all went on a three day trip to the mountains. The trip included environmental studies and team building. It was hard work for this old teacher, but it was fun! One of the best parts was a hike up to a small mountain peak near the camp. We would all scramble through the woods for an hour or so until we came out to the summit, where the students would gather and gaze down at the camp, far below. Part of our tradition was to call out a greeting from the summit to the camp below. The kids below would hear us and call back.
That particular year, there was some construction going on at the camp. From the summit, we could hear distant hammers and faint booms as piles of wood were unloaded from trucks.
I stood with my Pakistani student, asking him if he could hear the kids calling up from below. He frowned behind his large glasses, squinting at the lake in the distance. “Listen carefully,” I told him. “We’ll yell and the kids on the athletic field will yell back.”
The kids gathered around me, giggling and clearing their throats. “How, How!” we yelled. We waited, and then it came, “How, How!” from below. I turned to my student with a smile. “Did you hear it?”
He shook his head.
“All I can hear is those bombs down there.”
That’s what it’s like to leave a war zone. This poor kid heard distant hammering and simply assumed that bombs were going off.
He didn’t even react.
What grade am I in?
Many years ago, before I became a classroom teacher, I was the speech/language specialist in our school. I worked with kids who had communication disorders due to learning disabilities, hearing impairment, intellectual impairments and other challenges.
One year I was asked to evaluate a student who had recently immigrated to the U.S. from Brazil. The boy was tall, gangly armed in the way of pre-adolescent boys. He had a huge grin and sparkling brown eyes. Everything made him laugh.
His English was poor, but growing rapidly. He had a quick wit and warm charm that made him instantly popular with his classmates and teachers. He had very few academic skills, which was why I was doing my assessment. We weren’t sure if this young man had an underlying learning disorder that had held back his ability to read in his native Portuguese. We needed to find the best way to help catch up.
Although this student was old enough to be enrolled in our fifth grade, he had been placed in the fourth grade to give him time to catch up.
When I began my language assessment with a casual conversation, I learned why he was struggling so much.
“What grade were you in when you were in Brazil?”
“What grade? I don’t know. How do I know what grade I am in?”
“Honey, how many years of school did you do?”
“Oh. I don’t know.” I remember that he shrugged and grinned, looking up from beneath the brim of his cap. “I would go when there was a teacher. Sometimes I would go but there would be no teacher, so we just played or went home.”
I found out later, through an interpreter at a meeting with his Mom, that this boy had never completed a single year of school. There was no set curriculum, no continuity of lessons from year to year. Most troubling of all, teachers would come and go all year, often missing weeks of teaching time without replacements.
“This is why we left our country,” the Mom explained. “We wanted him to go to school.”
That handsome, charismatic, bright little guy was at our school for only a year. After that, we lost track of him as his family struggled to find a place to settle safely.
I think about him often.