“Lost or found, memories live on”.
This line from one of my student’s poem is true for us all. It reminded me of a mother who came in to talk to me – actually yell at me – about the failing grades that I was “giving” her son and that it was my fault he would not graduate. (My class was not the only one he was failing.)
The first trimester report cards had been passed out and his report card indicated that he would not have the grades he needed to graduate. The school secretary called me to “warn” me she was on her way to my classroom. I nervously waited for her to arrive. Her pounding on the door to let me know she was there.
From the way she walked in the room, to her refusal to sit when I offered her a chair, I knew this would not be pleasant. I don’t remember the exact words of our conversation, but it went something like this
“Please, sit down.” I said as I gestured to a chair across from my desk.
“I’m not here for a friendly visit. I’m here to find out why you’re picking on my son.”
“OK. Let’s look at his grades and last report card to see what’s going on.” I told her that the record book showed that he had not turned in 11 out of 20 assignments and the ones he did turn in were incomplete.
That’s when she let me have it. “Do you think all I have to do is monitor the assignments that you give him? I have two other children to worry about. I work two jobs and don’t have the luxury that you have in your nice clothes and respectable job and regular hours. It’s all I can do to buy food and clothes for them…I can’t even always do that. You think you are so much better than me because I’m not the perfect parent that I’m sure you are!”
The tirade continued along the same lines for a few a little longer. Realizing that she needed to vent, I kept my mouth shut.
She said she needed a cigarette. As she fumbled for a cigarette, I told her I was sorry but she could not smoke on the school grounds. That started another tirade about how everybody at school was so special that they couldn’t be around cigarettes.
Well, that was certainly not the hill I was willing to die on…I kept my mouth shut.
Then…she looked up from fumbling in her purse for cigarettes. I saw her eyes welling up with tears. At this point, she slumped into the chair and sobbed, “I can’t do it any more. I can’t do it any more. I can’t do…”
Everything changed at that moment. All agendas and preconceived judgments, both hers and mine, were gone. Without thinking I went around my desk and sat next to her. I took her hands in mine, leaned over and held her. She did not resist. We just sat there holding each other – I have no idea how long.
I am alone in this nightmare
No one to hold me, no one to care
No one to talk to, no one to share
Please hold me someone
Please someone care.
(Poem written by a student)
And then I told her my story. Yes, I was sitting in a classroom as the teacher. But it had not always been so. I told her that I walk the same path that she walks; I was a divorced, single parent, I knew the hopelessness, the depression, the difficulties. And even though it looked to her like I had it all together, I certainly did not!
Silence…She looked at me and mumbled, “Thank-you.”
We went on to come up with a plan for her son to follow that would allow him to pass my class and get the units he needed for graduation. I met with the two other teachers whose classes he was also failing and they agreed to make a plan for him. I’ll admit I broke some of my ironclad rules about not accepting missing or late assignments. I did not, however, lower the bar on grading his work. He and his mom needed to feel the authentic reward of hard work. To lower my standards for his assignments would be an insult to him and his mother.
Well, he managed to fulfill the requirements that we laid out for him. He certainly did not graduate at the top of his class – but he did graduate. His mother stepped up a bit by signing assignments… sometimes.
The next time I saw her was at his graduation. We looked at each other for a moment. She walked up to me, and quietly said, “Thank-you.”
It doesn’t get better than that!