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The Jewels of Education

As a teacher I am the clasp that keeps the bracelet and its charms secure.

Perspectives

I had a classroom full of teenagers sitting in desks that were lined up like charms in the chain that is the educational system, the goal of which is to embrace and sculpt these precious charms until such time that they are to be released into the world, their luster to shine for all to see. Such is the ambition of the educational system past and present. As a teacher I am the clasp that keeps the bracelet and its charms secure.

However, what students seek for themselves is many times contrary to goals of education. Students are interested in music and dancing and friends, and interacting on social networks, and the opposite sex, and, unfortunately, sometimes drugs and drinking. Reading and doing any kind of schoolwork is secondary and for some, almost nonexistent Thus, it is necessary that we not only know our subject matter and how to effectively dispel it, but we must also be able to discern the intricacies of the affective domain of teaching as well. The reality of teaching is that students bring their personal lives into our classrooms and plop them on our desks expecting us to do something about problems having nothing to do with our subject matter.

So, like every other teacher, my classroom was typical: an arrangement of desks into what I perceived to be the best way to optimize my daily disbursement of my subject matter: information arranged esthetically on bulletin boards, technology ready for 21st century, dissemination of information, lesson plans in order, pictures, posters, and any other object about my subject area that I thought to be attractive to my students was displayed. Like every teacher, I was ready!

So, like every other teacher, my classroom was typical: an arrangement of desks into what I perceived to be the best way to optimize my daily disbursement of my subject matter.
So, like every other teacher, my classroom was typical: an arrangement of desks into what I perceived to be the best way to optimize my daily disbursement of my subject matter.

Let me tell you the story of Mick. Mick was in my senior English class. He had not yet turned 18. He was a skinny, medium height, above average-looking kid; actually, I think he was a really cute kid. He had large piercing hazel eyes that drew attention to themselves without any help from him. He was quiet and polite. Sometimes he would pay attention in class, but he never-ever did homework or classwork. He had notebooks, pens and all the accoutrements of what he needed to be a successful student, but as best as I can recall, he never used them, nor did he feign using them. He just sat at his desk with his book or notebook open on his desk.

It was as if Mick sat in a blank space and all the space around him seemed to have been erased. Still he came every day, and it seemed to me that my classroom was one of the places he wanted to be. I sensed no hostility or negative aggression about anyone or anything in the classroom. Sometimes he actually listened to things we did in class. I could tell by the way his eyes followed whoever was speaking or doing some activity that he paid attention. My classroom seemed to be the place where he could step away from whatever it was that was holding him back.

Now, I was a skilled teacher, and I prided myself in being able to reach out to meet my students’ needs, whatever they might be. I knew that Mick needed a little more from me, as did others in the classroom. That wasn’t unusual. I made it my business to circulate throughout my classroom to give my students some kind of personal attention, whether it was a smile meant only for a certain student at a certain time or individual help with classwork.

One day while the class was engaged in an individual writing assignment, I went to the back of the room and sat in one of the empty seats next to Mick. I did not have assigned seats, and he always sat by himself. He seemed to welcome me into his space. His response was positive. His body language was welcoming. That was the day that I started to get to know the real Mick. I think?

I found out that he did no work because he was tired. Besides school he had a forty-hour a week at a local store as a stocker. I asked him why he didn’t cut back his hours, so he could focus on his school work. All he did was just smile and shake his head no at my uninformed perspective. It dawned on me later that he was like other students I knew who had to work because they supported their families. The money they made was necessary for the household.

As days went by, whenever I could steal a minute or two of class time to talk to him, I did. He began telling me more about himself. Funny thing is that the rest of the class didn’t mind because they saw the humanity in me, and they had good vibes in my class, and most of all they all knew that Mick needed more than they did.

The interesting thing is that almost every student would do anything I asked of them because they began to see me as a real person and not just a dispenser of knowledge they didn’t need or want in the first place. It’s really funny; one day one of my students called me ‘mother’ by accident. He was just that comfortable in class. He was embarrassed, but we all laughed good-naturedly, as I replied, “yes, son.”

Days later Mick told me that he had a girlfriend, whom he loved very much and that she was pregnant.
Days later Mick told me that he had a girlfriend, whom he loved very much and that she was pregnant.

Days later Mick told me that he had a girlfriend, whom he loved very much and that she was pregnant. He was very happy about the idea of being a father, and he said that he was going to marry her. He told me that he was going to be a good husband and father. I knew that Mick and I had become more than student and teacher. I had become a friend that he could tell personal things, but my goal was always his education. I wanted him to finish school. I wanted him to take an interest in his education. I wanted him to go further than high school as I saw that education offered him a better chance of success as a husband and father. Getting an education was everything! You get where I’m going? I wanted; I wanted; I wanted. Looking back, I know that I missed!

As days went by, Mick’s demeanor went from happy to gloomy. He told me that the girl didn’t want to be with him anymore. He said that she wanted someone else, and she didn’t want him anymore. He was sad about it, but he told me that he was going to take care of his child, nevertheless. I’ll tell you as a mother, I wanted to take away his sorrow and help him as best as I could. Again; I wanted; I wanted; I wanted.

The next day he told me that he had done everything he could to get her back, but she still didn’t want him, and she refused to see him or talk to him. He couldn’t go to her house anymore, nor call her on the phone. He seemed driven. I could tell that his sadness sank to misery and that aura surrounded him. He almost stopped saying anything at all, but I could tell that he wanted me to take my usual few minutes to sit next to him, and I did, but he didn’t talk anymore.

So, I told him all the things that I thought would be good for him to hear. I told him that he was so young and that he was about to graduate and enter into a whole new future and that he was a handsome young man and that there will be so many girls in his life and that he will have other loves and break-ups and that everybody at one time or another goes through losing someone they love. I told him that I’d had boyfriends who broke up with me. I was trying to show him that this was not a rejection of his entire being, but that it was a rejection of this relationship, and that everyone goes through rejections at one time or another.

I was trying to show him that this was not a rejection of his entire being, but that it was a rejection of this relationship, and that everyone goes through rejections at one time or another.
I was trying to show him that this was not a rejection of his entire being, but that it was a rejection of this relationship, and that everyone goes through rejections at one time or another.

Do you get where I’m going? I told him; I told him; I told him.

Yes, yes, I told him that losing him would be her loss and not his because any woman would be glad to have such a hard-working, dedicated, caring person such as him. I talked softly in his ear, telling him what I hoped someone would say to one of my children in despair. We all hope that our children will talk to us, but we all know that children have secret lives too. The funny thing is now that I look back on my sojourn with him, I can’t remember Mick ever saying anything about his parents or family. All I knew was that he worked hard and he had a girlfriend who was pregnant.

You might be wondering why I spent so much time talking with this student about something other than English! Why didn’t I send him to the counselors? Because when a student takes the time to tell you something so personal, you are at that moment the counselor, the person he wants to talk to, and he will not speak to anyone else.

Besides if you teach long enough, you’ll find out that if students feel that you’re a person they can count on, they will tell you all kinds of things. They will bring their lives into your classroom and plop them down on your desk, saying “Now do something about this, please!”

I thought that if he continued to come to class and talk to me, he could lean on me, and I could help him get through this. I also decided to talk to a counselor and get advice on what to do. The counselor told me to keep talking to him, and she would try to contact his parents to see what was going on. You think that everyone has a phone, but I found out later that the school had no phone number for Mick.  As I said I couldn’t just refer him because he wouldn’t go, and he would possibly stop talking to me as well. Maybe he’d see it as my rejecting him too. At least I could still talk to him everyday and maybe make him see that he was okay and that there was a wide world before him, and it was open to him. What I knew for sure was that he felt my sincerity and affection for him.

Interestingly enough, I never saw him anywhere between classes. You always at one time or another run into students in the hall between classes or at lunchtime. Mick seemed to be absent everywhere else, only to appear in my room.

But I learned the hard way that sincerity from another does not always translate into self-belief. The next day Mick told me that she told him that the baby was not his. He was in deep despair. At this point I knew that he needed to talk to someone else. I asked him where his parents were. He told me that he didn’t need to talk to anyone else and that he was glad he had me to talk to. I assured him that he did, and we would always be friends.

He came to school the next day, but he didn’t have much to say. He seemed to be deep in his desk and his desk seemed to have sunk for below the others in the classroom. When I had a chance, I went to the back of the room to talk to him. He assured me that he was okay, and he had resolved his problem and that it was over between them, and that he was going on with his life. I was unsettled because I knew him well enough to know that he was not okay. I had made up my mind that I was going to talk to the counselor again about him, and see if I could get him into the counselor’s office.

The following day Mick’s desk was not only empty, but it looked darker and heavier than any other desk in the room.
The following day Mick’s desk was not only empty, but it looked darker and heavier than any other desk in the room.

The following day Mick’s desk was not only empty, but it looked darker and heavier than any other desk in the room. I attended to the needs of the rest of the class, but my heart was heavy, and the entire classroom, as did I, continually glanced back at Mick’s desk. All the students in the class seemed heavy too. Mick’s absence was in the air. Even though he never did any class work, he was one of my jewels in the educational bracelet.  I ended the class and the day with a feeling of deep emptiness and despair that I could not put a name to.

The next morning before the first period class the principal called all Mick’s teachers into his office and told us that Mick had committed suicide the night before. The announcement was pointblank and without emotion. It seemed the principal wanted to make the announcement and get us out of his office and go on to the next thing.

The principal said that he was making counselors available to any student who needed to talk, and that they would come in and break the news to our classes if needed be. I chose to announce Mick’s death to my class myself; they were my students; Mick had been ours, our own jewel. We were family during that period, five days a week.

As I walked back to my class, I thought about what I could have done differently. Sometimes you know that if you get someone else involved, students will disappear or they will stop talking to you. Some students just disappear and don’t come back. When you work with kids from troubled homes, that’s a reality. I talked to the counselor, and she took other steps. It might be the reason he killed himself. I don’t know. The entire point is that working with certain kinds of students is difficult, and sometimes you can’t do anything to help them.

I stood up in front of the class and announced Mick’s death. Some students already knew. I felt a void and emptiness, and a great sense of failure.  As I spoke to my class, I cried.

I am retired from Lone Star College, Professor at North Harris College and later adjunct professor at CyFair College. I have taught high school and college in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, California and Texas. Author of “A Look Behind Lightning.”

: sdballentine.com

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