Hope

Did I ever tell you the one about the time a kid rammed a piece of furniture into me and smashed me against a wall?

I don’t know that I’ve written about it, but if you know me you’ve probably heard it. It goes like this:

So there I was, in my first year teaching, placed in a job that was half-time library and half-time special education resource center.  I’d just spent the last five years getting a dual-endorsement in elementary education and special education. Part of that included classes on teaching PE and music, but not library. Long story short…sometimes I made stuff up. I have a passion for reading and turning kids into lovers of literature, but not for the Dewey Decimal System and definitely not for keeping hundreds of books in neat and tidy rows.

I had decided it would be a great idea to have the 5th grade class do a biography project. Great idea in theory, kind of a hot mess in practice. Thinking I’d structured it well enough, I let them loose in the library.  They were free to work on the floor, at a table, in the primary book nook with a clipboard, or wherever worked best for them.  Lack of structure and clear expectations can typically result in poor performance at a minimum. If I’d been lucky, it all would have ended in a mass of disappointing loose-leaf ramblings about pop stars and sports heroes.  I wasn’t lucky, though.  I had lessons to learn.

My school was little and only had one class per grade level, in addition to a self-contained special education class for students with extreme behavioral needs. Most were never let out of the sight of a specially trained adult. The teachers were all well-versed in de-escalation techniques and physically restraining kids. I wasn’t. I hadn’t been around long enough to get that training.

The hope of the program is for all the students to eventually get to a place where they can go back to a typical classroom.  Small steps of inclusion are begun, usually by integrating the student into the specialist times. One of those students was in my library class that day.

I loved that kid. LOVED him. He was sensitive, kind, and reflective. He also had an incredibly difficult time managing frustration, but had worked on on problem-solving strategies and calming techniques.  As much as I’m big on forgiving yourself and moving on, I think about this day as the day that I failed him.

Kids were spread all over the library, and this was a big library by elementary school standards.  Not being totally sure what I wanted from them or where they might struggle, I hadn’t given a particularly clear picture of what I’d expected them to do and consequently had twenty-something children popping up hands or following me around asking for help. Instead of calling everyone together to redirect, I just kept putting out the small fires and failed to notice that one of them was about to explode…until he did.

I’m not anti-Incredible Hulk, it’s just that as a fictional character he’s much too close to the reality I have had the misfortune to experience that I cannot find him entertaining. Except for turning green and becoming a giant, Bruce Banner and so many students in behavioral classrooms go through essentially the same experience, just as this boy did. Fists balled, arms tense at his side, teeth clenched and breathing heavily, he went over a ledge and turned into a boy I didn’t even know.

He paced and panted and punched his thighs.  I tried to talk him down, but it was too late.

Libraries often have these metal, rolling book shelves that librarians use to move books from the checkout station back to their homes.  They’re waist-high and heavy.  He grabbed two, one with each hand, and started spinning and yelling and slamming them against shelves.

Clearly, I needed help. I had library full of kids watching their peer toss around large, metal objects in a blind rage.  I dialed his classroom…no answer.  I dialed the office, but they also had no idea where to find his teacher or para-educator. My other problem was that where he was having his nuclear melt-down was between me and the rest of the class and between all of us and the door. I couldn’t get to them and we couldn’t get out. I had no idea what to do.

My next move was about to be sending all my kids out the fire exit and setting off the alarm. It would have resulted in a visit from the fire department and a mass-evacuation of the entire school, but they would have been safe. Just before I sent them out, I heard his teacher’s laugh down the hallway.

One thing I did know was that when a kid is freaking out like that, you don’t put yourself between them and the exit. I didn’t have much of a choice, but he definitely proved the advice to be correct.  He had tossed the carts up against the open door, blocking the doorway.  Scooting one back a little, I got my head out the door as far as I could and yelled his teacher’s name into the hallway.  Not being able to see her, I just had to hope she would hear me.  He charged at me and slammed the full length of his body against the cart I’d moved and pinned me between the cart and the wall.  This kid was big and had just started on a football team. It was not a comfortable experience.

Instantly his teacher was at the door.  In one movement, she flung the cart out of her way, kicked off her shoes, and hauled him out of the library. She was shorter than him and he could easily have out-weighed her, but in the blink of an eye we were all left in silence, staring at her empty loafers.

The rest of class left with their teacher and I had a few minutes to reflect. Kids never get that out of hand without telling you in some way that it’s about to happen. Looking back, I saw that he had asked me for help several times, gradually turning redder and redder.  Other students had asked first and I had asked him to wait as I wandered all over the library. He’d asked politely and waited as long as he could. If I had paused long enough to check in with him or to tell him exactly who I would be helping before him or recognized his distress and given him an alternative task, it would not have been a moment remarkable enough for retelling.

He came back later to apologize to me, but I also had to apologize to him.  Serious work had been put in on his part to be accepted by this 5th grade class, and my lack of structure and overall inexperience had helped him to undo it all in a matter of minutes. For a kid like him, it gets to a place where the brain chemistry takes over and he is no longer in control. Every time I think about him, I wish I had heeded the signs and helped him keep his most hated part of himself in check in front of the people he most wanted to approve of him.

And I think about him a lot. I’ve prayed for him and hoped that life got better for him after 5th grade. The way that day went down is present in every interaction I have had with every student who deals with frustration. How do I keep them in control of their emotions? And if I can’t do that, how to I help them preserve some dignity in the eyes of their peers?

That year was my one and only year at that school.  In order to keep my position, I was told I would have to go back to school and become certificated to teach library.  Already being dual-endorsed and not having found a deep love of Dewey and research sciences, I opted to take my chances on landing another special ed. job elsewhere in the district. For the next couple of years I bounced from school to school, mostly splitting my time half and half between buildings until finally settling at my current building, where I’ve been for the last several years.

This year I had an intern for a few weeks from a local high school. Students can apply for a program meant to expose them to a work environment and test out a career path before they even start applying for colleges. We loved having our kid with us in Room 1. At the end there is a celebration breakfast where all the interns come together with their supervisors to share what they’ve learned and say thank you.  During the slide-show some students had put together, I saw students that had interned at salons, other schools, the governor’s office, mechanic shops, mortuaries, event planning companies, etc.  I saw my intern sitting in Room 1 under our faux truffula tree made out of an old globe covered in tulle. And then I saw him. I recognized his face and his blue eyes. I recognized his name.

He’d made it to high school. He’d applied to one of our special-focus high schools and been accepted. He’d applied to be an intern and they trusted him enough to let him show up at a job site every day on his own. I couldn’t believe it.

Seeing him on that screen was a rare moment where life actually gets tied up in a nice bow. My intern and I had just done some math a couple days before that made me feel old. We realized that he had been a 5th grader my second year teaching at a school I’d taught at for just one year.  Realizing that my intern was a junior and that the 5th graders from my first year teaching would be seniors, I thought about that day in the library and wondered and worried about that boy who had momentarily lost his mind on my watch. I prayed for him. And then days later, I saw him on a big screen with a proud grin.

As I left the breakfast, skirting carefully around the outside of a room full of high school kids, I found him sitting at a table all by himself. Without even thinking about it, I sat down.  He was only slightly bigger than he’d been in 5th grade and his posture still slumped, but his face was more mature. After being reminded of my name and when he’d known me, he lit up.

“I’m doing so good, Miss Randle!” he told me.”I never get in any trouble anymore.”

“I knew you wouldn’t,” I assured him.  We chatted about his school and where he’d interned. Then a girl popped up behind him and covered his eyes. She made him “guess who,” and they laughed. How was he getting back to campus? Had he seen so-and-so? Was he hanging with the group later?

He had a friend. He had a whole group of friends. She’d sought him out in a room full of people. He was miles away from the kid I knew in that library. My heart swelled.

I told him it was great to see him and got up to leave.

“Hey!” he stopped me.  “When you go back to school, will you tell them?  Tell them you saw me and tell them how good I’m doing. Please.”

Oh, yes, friend. I’m telling everyone about you.

You hear that middle school is a dangerous and scary place and that high school can be brutal. We work really hard at the elementary level to prepare kids for what comes next, but in the end you just have to hope it’ll be alright and send them on. You have to trust that the educators that come after you will love and fight for those kids as much, if not more, than you did.  In his case, they must have. Caring adults must have built on the foundation of the ones that came before them and enabled him to get to a place where he could trust himself enough to form friendships and be successful at a competitive high school.

I cried all the way back to school that day. I had just told my intern that story (leaving out the name), just realized what grade he’d have been in, wondered and prayed, and then had him turn up at a place I never expected to find him to answer all my questions with the best answers imaginable.

As a teacher, I’m proud of my profession.

As a Christian, I’m assured of the sovereignty of a God who, by His grace, gives us the freedom to try, fail, learn, and to see those failures and struggles redeemed in ways we didn’t even think to hope for.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” –2 Corinthians 12:9

I Made a Mistake

Okay, so really I made two. 

Okay, so really I’ve made lots, but I’m trying not to dwell on them.  I’m only going to dwell on these two and for only as long as it takes me to get through this post.  Then I’m done, moving on, getting over it.

Mistake #1– Leaving two boys unsupervised long enough to let this happen:

I don’t know how well you can see it, but there’s a ridiculous amount of Scotch tape stuck to the legs of this chair.

 One of my wingnuts taped another of my wingnuts to the chair using my last roll of Scotch tape. 

I’d been talking to my student teacher about a lesson plan she’d taught the day before.  I’d meant for it to be a quick five-minute conversation, but it turned into 15.  Towards the end, we heard what sounded like muffled shouts of glee.  Like, seriously, you’re shouting for glee, but someone’s got a hand over your mouth or is covering your face with a pillow.  Why either of those would induce glee is not something I can imagine right now.

Wingnut 1 and Wingnut 2 had been playing on the other side of a shelf of cubbies for most of our conversation.  When I heard the strange “I’m trapped under a pillow but I’m really excited about it” sounds, I looked around for them and realized they were in the one spot in the room where they couldn’t be seen. 

“Hey, dudes! Get out here, please!” I called.  There were some light unsticking sounds and then the sounds of little feet scurrying. When they finally presented themselves, one looked happy, but guilty.  The other looked happy, but covered in Scotch tape from forehead to eyebrow and all down his cheeks.  This would explain what muffled the giggles.

Wingnut 2 said that Wingnut 1 had asked him to do it.  “Is Wingnut 1 the boss of you?” I asked.  Actually I think I said something like “king of your life” or “director of your days.” I’m not super fond of the phrase “boss of you.”  It just doesn’t sound right. 

So, moving on from my personal preferences regarding the English language, I ended up sitting them down for a long chat.  Wingnut 1 has had many, many chats with me.  It’s to the point now that he literally almost cries if I say, “Hey, friend, we need to have a little chat.”  Even if it’s said in a cheerful tone.  I’m taking a page from my maternal grandfather’s book.  From what I hear, death by lecture was his consequence of choice when raising my mom and her siblings.  That and boxing out their differences on the front lawn, but that’s not really an option in the public school setting.  Something I realize I’ve said many, many times since I began teaching is, “I see that you’d really like to not be here right now and that you’d rather not have this conversation. I’d really love to never have to talk to you about this again. For your entire recess and my entire planning time. The way to make that happen is to never do that again.  Do it again, and we get to repeat this entire process, which is no fun for anyone.”  Never do it again or just get smart enough to never get caught again, either way we all get our recess back.

What I was hoping they’d never do again this time was use all my classroom materials to tape their peers to the chairs hostage-style.  I still can’t find that roll of tape.

When I began the conversation, I said, “Okay, friends.  Two mistakes were made here today.  One by me and one by you.  I let my conversation go longer than I’d meant to and I let your free time go too long.  I didn’t give you any directions.”  Then we talked about their mistake and I had them process through what an appropriate choice would have been by drawing four good free time choices (not involving any adhesives).

It worked out.  Not much harm done, except for maybe a couple of totally unnecessary eyebrows that I’m sure no one will miss.

Are we ready to move on?

Mistake #2 — I bought a Costco-sized chunk of gorgonzola cheese from, um, Costco.

Who on earth, besides a caterer or the Gorgonzola Cheese Society of America (or maybe the Americas, including Canada and South America) needs that much gorgonzola in her life?  What was I thinking?

Probably I was thinking it was a different cheese, like cambezola, that I’d tried at a gathering on crackers and had really, really liked.  Probably I’d gotten confused because when someone said cambezola I thought gorgonzola because I’d had that with chicken at a wedding once a few years ago and had enjoyed it.  I tried the cambezola because I’d thought about how trying gorgonzola had worked out ok that one time in that tiny amount diluted by all that protein and sauce. And then I went to Costco a month after that, saw the gorgonzola and thought it was what had been spread on my crackers and bought a chunk the size of my face.

I also bought pears because somewhere I’d heard that pear and gorgonzola were something people put on salads and that if you could do that, why couldn’t I just cut some chunks of cheese and eat them with my pears? That sounds like a snack a sophisticated European woman would sit down for, right?  I tried it.  It was ok. Gorgonzola is a really strong-tasting cheese, though, and I had a hard time getting through the one slice I’d cut for myself. 

Then I woke up at about 1 AM with some serious tummy issues.  I was doubled-over, praying to throw up.  Is that TMI? Whatever.  I need your sympathies, people. And besides, I didn’t actually throw up.  I wish I had, but it didn’t work out that way. Sleep didn’t happen for me that night and I had to call in for a sub for that day, the first day back from winter break.  I blame the gorgonzola. 

So now I have this giant chunk of cheese sitting in my fridge and a ton of uncertainty surrounding exactly what to do with it.

I’ve tried these two things: a pizza and a pasta.

Here’s the pizza:

It is made up of a whole wheat Boboli pizza crust (better crusts can be home-made, for sure, but I rarely have the patience to let things rise), caramelized onions, pancetta, gorgonzola, and a bit of thyme sprinkled over the top. 

In the spirit of tooting my own horn, that thing was delicious.  Less gorgonzola was used on this whole pizza than what I ate that night with the pear (which honestly was maybe a little larger than a reasonable slice of cheddar). 

Here’s the pasta:

My plan was to combine baby portobello mushrooms and the rest of the pancetta with a recipe I found on The Pioneer Woman’s site: Pasta ai Quattro Formaggi.

It looks very easy and manageable, and probably would have been if I hadn’t decided to add the mushrooms and pancetta without actually being sure of my timing.  My pasta is kind of mushy because I forgot to set the timer and then I scalded the milk on accident and had to dump it out and reheat some more. All this meant that it didn’t come together exactly as hers seems to have. 

I used these four cheeses: parmesan (like she does), fontina (like she does), goat cheese (like she does), and gorgonzola (because I’m trapped under a heavy mountain of moldy cheese and am determined to cook my way out).  It’s yummy and cheesy.  I’ll try it again sometime.  Probably sometime soon because now on top of all my gorgonzola, I also have parmesan, fontina, and goat cheese.  That’s so much dairy for one girl to incorporate into her life. Besides, I’m already completely committed to Greek yogurt.

On the upside, though, goat cheese is creamy heaven, in case you were wondering.

And, because I’m sure you’re curious, I’ve used probably 15% of the huge-mondo-sized brick of moldy cheese I bought.  What on this earth am I going to do with the rest of it?

If you were so inclined, I’m sure you could search back through this whole mess and find several more mistakes I’ve made recently.  There’s probably a long list in there.  If you choose to spend your time doing that, I guess that’s up to you.  Please don’t share it with me, though.  The weight of the gorgonzola is already crushing my spirit.

I have learned a couple of things, though, besides that goat cheese and my taste buds were destined to love eachother from the beginning of time.

Thing 1: Never leave a wingnut unattended.  It’s a sticky mess.

Thing 2: Never buy a piece of cheese that, should it happen to fall from a high place, could pin your cat to the floor.

This is for your own good, people.  Don’t make my mistakes.