The first day back to class is always full of adrenaline, expectation and fun for me. I’m exhausted at the end of the week, but it’s a good kind of teacher tired. It reminds me that teaching is hard work – if you want to do it right. It’s the kind of fatigue that builds from beginning to create a community from nothing – the first step in letting kids know you’re paying attention to them so they trust you. And it’s beginning to balance kids, teaching, and motherhood – even when I’ve got an empty nest at home.
The first day
In my very, very small reading class, I have the opportunity to connect quickly with my students. We sit on stools and cushions together around a low coffee-style table, face to face. The first day of school this year was also the day my son was leaving the nest and flying to college in Boston. Being a teacher mom has these moments of feeling stretched between two worlds – do we focus on our own child and their needs, or tuck that away and see the kids in front of us. Of course, I try to do both and sometimes it doesn’t work out so well.
The empty nest
This year I didn’t get to see my son off at the airport, and I was sad. I stuffed it away for the morning of teaching, but at lunch when I had a few quiet moments I texted him to see if he made it out of our house ok. Sure enough, he was on his way to the airport and said he’d call when he was settled. The call came just as the bell was ringing for my 5th-period reading class – what do I do? Greet my students with a phone in my hand? Ignore them as they come in the door, knowing it will be weird for them to not see a whole class full of kids? Ignore my son…somehow I needed to balance it. I wanted to show my students the human side of me – the mamawolfe side.
So, quickly I answered the call, hung up, and brought my new readers into a circle. Introducing myself, I told them how happy I was to be their teacher and told them that my own son needed help, he was traveling to college and asked their permission to be a mom while they browsed the books in my classroom library and relaxed.
Of course, they said ok.
Building the relationships
After a few minutes of helping Cam get his boarding pass situated, I was back to the group. And naturally, they had questions. How old was my son? Where was he flying to? What did he need help with? How many kids did I have? Did I have a pet? Where is Massachusetts? Where is Boston? What began as a dilemma had turned into a very teachable moment. We used our US map and found his college, and talked about moving away from home. Quietly, the dark-haired boy to my left said, “I just moved away, too. I used to live in Oakland, but now I live here.”
I was pretty sure no one else heard him. He kept his eyes down, either shy or scared or both. I twisted around and replied, “Oh wow- Oakland is sure a whole lot different from Davis, don’t you think?”
He looked up. “Yeah. It’s a lot quieter.” His voice was a touch louder, but I could still tell he wasn’t ready to open up. The other kids were caught up in their picture book selections and relaxed on beanbags, so I pushed a bit.
“How long ago did you move?” I asked.
His stomach rumbled in the quiet room. Even though we had just come from lunch, I whispered, “Are you hungry?”
“No,” he quickly replied, barely audible.
“Ok; I have granola bars and crackers if you ever want anything….”
“Granola,” he blurted out before I could finish. Silently I stood up, went to my cabinet and grabbed a chocolate chip chewy bar and a small bag of pretzels from my snack drawer. Without speaking, I put them on the table in front of him and sat back down.
Like any teenage boy, he gulped down the snacks as I sat next to him, reading along with my other students. He stood up, dropped his wrappers in the trash and as he sat back down beside me, he asked if I’ve ever been to Oakland.
That moment – like an electrical charge – broke the ice, the first step taken. We connected. I think he felt my care for him; his body visibly relaxed into his chair. We talked about my grand-doodle Ellie, and other kids jumped in to tell about their dogs. I promised to show a picture of her the next day, and suddenly the class was over. I asked if he knew where to go next, and his quick reply reminded me of what it’s like being the ‘new kid’ in school. Glancing at his schedule I suggested I could walk with him – he was going to one of my favorite teacher’s classes.
“Sure…” his voice came out in a whisper-question, but I went with it. As we approached his history class, I introduced him to his teacher as he greeted kids at the door, knowing they were both Oakland fans. He would be safe in there.
What happened next
In truth, that’s not all of the story – it’s actually not even my favorite part. What happened the next day was where I really realized the power of connections, and what we had done together.
“B” walked back into my room the next day and looked straight at me and said hello as I brought my stool up to the coffee table. The shyness of the first day disappeared, and as the other kids were wiggling around with their backpacks and books, “B” said, “Ms. Wolfe, I have a question. Did your son make it to Boston OK?”
Startled, I looked back at him and replied, “Why yes he did – thank you for asking. I’m sorry yesterday started off a little weird, but he’s there now and I’m here and ready to read!”
“B” smiled and cracked open his book, settling back into the grey Papasan chair I had brought from my son’s bedroom at home. “B”, about the same age Cam was when he used to curl up in it, too, relaxed in his safe space.
I had to go over to my desk for a moment…I knew the tears were coming. Being a teacher-mom is like that. Relationships happen in the most unexpected ways at the most unusual times. Opening up to kids and letting them see YOU helps them open right back up and lets you see THEM. And that’s where the magic can really start to happen.