On the first day of school, I waited in my fifth grade classroom for them to come and I looked over the list of names I had been given. I didn’t know how to pronounce many of them. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, so I wrote each name on the board. After everybody arrived, I asked them to go and stand under their names. And then one by one, they introduced themselves and had to tell the class something interesting that they did over the summer. I sat in the back and wrote each name phoenetically!
Raised in a middle-class family out in the country and going to a high school that was big enough to be envied but small enough that we all knew each other, had not prepared me for teaching at this school. There were kids from different ethnicities at my school, but we all got along and loved each other. When I graduated from that high school, more than half of my classmates had been with me since elementary school. Many since kindergarten!
After college, I had taught in several schools, many of them rural with the biggest problem being kids who were tardy because they’d gone squirrel hunting that morning.
But since I had come to teach at this school, I had seen many things that left me standing with my mouth open in shock.
Kids who had been picked up for shoplifting when they were in second grade. Kids with no furniture in their homes who told me their parents sold it to get money for drugs. Kids who had seen more in their young lives than I ever had. Kids who didn’t trust me. At all.
We grew to love each other. They learned that they could tell me when they had gotten to school late and missed breakfast. I always kept a few granola bars in my desk drawers. They learned that in the middle of science and spelling, we could have an impromtu dance-off to settle an arguement from recess. They learned that they could tell me when they had messed up. Yes, there would be consequences, but I would still love them.
They learned that, at the end of the day, no matter what had happened at school, I would walk them to the top of the stairs outside our classroom and I would hug each one of them and tell him that I loved him.
One of my babies was named Charles.
Oh, my gosh, he was bad! The problem was that he was also hilarious. So many times, he would do or say something that I needed to correct, but I had to turn away and bite my lip to keep from laughing first! He was the shortest kid in my class by at least six inches, but he had enough personality to make up for it.
And the most beautiful smile.
He would be on my last nerve with some of his silliness and then he would flash that bright, beautiful smile and I would melt. Wherever he is today, I’d be willing to bet that smile is still getting him out of trouble!
His best friend in our class was Aaron – the tallest kid in our class! They were such a sweet pair. Aaron didn’t like it if someone picked on Charles for being short, so anytime we were outside and someone said something mean, Aaron would scoop Charles onto his shoulders so that Charles became the tallest in the class. And then he would dare anyone to pick on his buddy. And no one would.
The two of them even helped come up with our class curse word. See, they learned pretty quickly that I would not allow any profanity in our classroom. None. Not for any reason. Not from anybody. My principal told me it was a losing battle. That many of them were just repeating what they heard at home and on t.v. So I sat down with the whole class one day and told them that it really bothered me when they talked that way. That it really hurt my heart. And I asked them to please, please, please not use those words in my class anymore. They were quiet for a few minutes and then one little boy asked, “Well, what do we say if we get mad?” I suggested that we come up with one word that everyone in our class would use in times of anger, frustration, or outrage. It couldn’t be a traditional curse word and we all had to agree to use it. After a minute of thought, Charles raised his hand. “Mrs. Pate, can you step outside for just a minute?” I agreed. I stepped out into the hall, but I listened.
Y’all, we got to come up with a word. (Michelle)
I ain’t coming up with no word! She’s crazy! (Mikel)
Hush! Didn’t you hear her? We’re hurting her heart! (Charles)
Yeah, hush! If you’re not gonna help, just be quiet! (Shameka)
Okay, so what word do we use? (Ebony)
They went back and forth for a few minutes before one of them, Tamaro (pronounced Tomorrow) came to get me.
“Okay,” I said as I stood in front of them. “What’s it gonna be?”
And they proudly proclaimed their word loud and proud. I agreed and it became our go-to bad word at school.
Once someone from the school board office showed up to observe my class. I just taught as I always did and we went on about our business. Afterward, when my kids went to PE, I sat down with the school board lady and she was very complimentary about my lesson. And then she said, “I do need to ask you one thing. I noticed that when the kids were working independently, anytime they got frustrated, they would say “Gorilla!” under their breath. They all did this. Do you know why?” I smiled and told her the story of our class curse word. Having taught at the same type of school when she was younger, she completely understood and thought it was a great idea.
There’s a day during that school year that is forever etched in my heart. It was in late March. A cold, windy rain had beat down all day long, making outside recess impossible – for the third day in a row. We had all grown weary of the inside. Of “indoor recess” and playing too many games of Seven-Up and Bingo. There were cross attitudes and sullen faces. It was one of those days. The last half-hour of class seemed to drag by. We were all trying to stick with our routine of cleaning up and packing and getting ready to go home. But none of us could stop looking at the clock. The clock whose hands seemed to be frozen!
When the dismissal bell finally rang, we lined up and I led them out to the bannister. I began to hug each one and we said our love you’s. And then, a teacher at the bottom of the stairs yelled up that the buses were leaving early because of the weather and they needed to RUN! They stampeded down the stairs with me standing at the top reminding them to be safe on the way down.
As I turned to walk back to my classroom, I heard the downstairs teacher yell, “Where are you going?”
And a little voice shouted, “I’m sorry! I forgot something!”
I turned just in time to see Charles running as fast up the stairs as his legs would carry him.
“What did you forget, baby?” I asked.
He hurled himself into my arms and squeezed me tightly. “My hug!” he said.
I laughed and hugged him back and then he spoke the words that still ring in my ears to this day. “It’s the only one I get all day! I had to come back for it!”
And then he was gone.
I stood there for several long minutes, with tears brimming my eyes. I covered my mouth with my hand as the tears began to stream down my face and I sank to sit on the top stair.
I realized that I grew up smothered in my parents’ hugs. I even went through a stage where I wiggled away from those hugs in distain.
But this little boy needed my hugs.
It’s the only one I get all day!
What else had I taken for granted?
He changed me on that day.
He changed the way I looked at kids. He changed the way I treated kids. He changed the way I thought about kids.
He made me realize that I didn’t know anything.
He made me realize that reading and math and science and history and spelling are great and necessary things.
But they’re not the only things.
Thank you, Charles.
I love you.