“Mamawolfe, can I talk to you today?” he questioned as he walked through the doorway of our classroom. There’s a reason I make a herculean effort to greet kids when they come into class. I get a chance to SEE them. I look them in the eye, say their name, and do a quick ‘mom’ check – eyes, face, body language…I can tell a ton in a quick ten-second glance.
“Sure, bud – let’s make some time to talk in class today. And if something happens – I’ll make sure we connect during 6th period. I don’t teach then, and I’ll call you out of class, ok?”
He seemed temporarily satisfied, but I could tell after the first five minutes of beginning the class something was definitely NOT Ok. His eyes downcast, head tilted to the floor, and no jovial banter with the seatmates – this was not the kid I knew.
“Mrs. Wolfe, can I please go in the hall to text my mom?” he asked during binder check.
“Sure, but why don’t you go sit at my desk instead? Make yourself comfy,” I suggested, and he agreed.
More to come
A few minutes later I asked him if this was a good time, and to come back to my ‘office’ – a fancy word for a corner space by my desk with a beat-up black bean bag, some lavender oil and coloring books, and kleenex. Several boxes. Most of all, it’s a place where I can listen without interruption, kids can cry and feel safe telling me what’s on their mind. Mostly my AVID classes use this space, but my 7th graders have been known to figure out that I will listen to them there, too.
Today the tears started almost immediately, validating my hunch that all was not right in this 13-year-old’s world. I know this kid pretty well – he’s had more than his share of trauma already in his life. So I listened. He told me about home, his mom, and how he’s frustrated and anxious and worried about his performance in school…and I listened. I reminded him that he will get through this and that when kids have anxiety at school it’s often connected to stuff they’re feeling outside of school – and I knew his outside of school was not great. Not even good. Downright crappy, in fact.
Handing him a tissue, I asked, ‘What’s one thing I can do today to make it just a little bit better?” He shook his head.
“Do you want me to write a note to your history teacher asking for permission to turn in late work?”
“No – my mom will do that. That’s why I texted her. But I know she’s just going to yell at me when I get home. And dump all her problems on me.”
Do parents listen?
I temper my rage when I hear these kinds of things coming from kids’ mouths – and yes, I’ve heard them before. But as a teacher – particularly an AVID teacher – I’m concerned about my student. I’m their advocate. I’m there for them. I can help parents get resources, I can give advice, but when I’ve got a sad and anxious kiddo in front of me, I want to make it better. I just can’t help it. They’re just KIDS! I want to scream. BABIES! They shouldn’t be dealing with all these real-life adult things yet.
“You know, I can just go to your teacher and let him know you need time. That’s part of my job as your AVID teacher. No questions asked. He trusts me…”
“Let me check if she texted me back – nope of course not,” he interrupted, glancing quickly at his phone.
“Ok,” I replied, looking into his eyes. “You know, you are amazing. You have so much more to deal with than an 8th grader should. Your mom is lucky to have an amazing kid like you, you know? You’re amazing because you are YOU. You don’t have to do anything or prove anything – you’re just awesome,” I sputtered.
What I wanted to say was, “Your mom is lucky you’re not taking all this out on yourself like some kids do – cutting, drinking, vaping, cutting school…all you’re asking is for her to listen to you. To see how amazing you really are. And to treat you like a kid – not her therapist.” But of course, I swallowed those thoughts and we made a plan.
“You know, I just feel better telling you,” he replied softly. And I thanked him again. As I was getting up, he looked at me and asked, “Can I have a hug?”
‘Of course, you can, Bud, of course,” and he smiled back as he reached for me.
Some days teaching is harder than others – for lots of different reasons. Some days are frustrating, some are long, some are painful. But when I have days like today, the days when I know I’ve been able to be that person a kid can trust to listen, to help them breathe through their anxiety, and to help them remember how amazing they are, it’s worth it. Every single time.
Because they’re KIDS. They have feelings and thoughts and insecurities and very little life experience to draw on to know what’s ‘normal’ and what to do and how to handle life…especially when the adults in their life don’t know how to handle their own.
These are the days I feel like a teacher. These are the days when I didn’t teach the curriculum – I taught students.