The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Different Spaces

Today is Saturday. I was running errands this morning and happened to go by Wal-Mart. While there, I saw two children who I have taught in the past. One was a girl I have not seen since my first year of teaching. She had some pretty serious behavioural issues due to a difficult home life, but she was not a terrible student. Just had difficulty expressing herself in appropriate ways in class. At least, this is what I remember of her. The other was her younger brother, who was one of the three holy terrors in my class yesterday. In fact, his behaviour was the worst of the three. He was the boy who fought with two different students, cursed at me, his teacher, the assistant principal, the principal, and at least one parent who happened to be in the hallway at the time. I have learned a little bit about their home situation and I’ll be honest: it is one of the saddest stories I have encountered in my life.

Yet I saw something today that I have never heard about whenever I have worked with these students’ teachers. I saw their father. I saw that he looked like a man who has had a hard life, has been beaten down again and again, and wants to do what’s best for his children but doesn’t really know what all he can do. I saw a man who seems wary of all strangers, and weary of life. And yet I also saw a man who would do whatever necessary to protect his children. I saw this in his eyes, in the way he looked at me when his two relatively young children suddenly started talking to what he must have seen as a strange man in Wal-Mart. I was wearing a jacket over a hoodie, jeans and worn sneakers. My hair was not particularly well-kempt, and so there was none of the professional demeanor that I usually have. Remember, this is a Saturday morning. His kids both explained that I have been their teacher in the past, and the son smiled and said that I was his teacher yesterday. The girl also smiled. They were both smiling the whole time they were talking to me, and the smiles were simple, easy, and sincere. I couldn’t stay long, so I told the father that I’ve had the opportunity to work with both of them as a substitute teacher, and then let them know that I had to be going, and I left. The entire encounter was less than five minutes.

Then it struck me:

I have never seen either one of these children smile before. I’ve seen them with flat expressions, I’ve seen the boy filled with rage, I’ve seen him struggle to control his composure and then lose it, but I’ve never seen a smile.

Is it because I’ve only ever seen them in school? That is quite likely the cause. Especially for this boy, who I have taught in two different classes over the past two years (possibly even three–I can’t recall if he was in any of the classes I taught my first year as a sub), he has always given the impression that school is not where he wants to be. It is as if coming to school creates a physical change in him that affects everything. The boy I saw yesterday was negative, angry, and violent. There were moments in the day when I was certain he was going to take a swing at my face. The boy I saw today was positive, happy, and friendly.

What a difference different spaces can create! I am going to remember this the next time I am in his classroom, and I am going to remind him of this brief encounter. Will it make a difference? I don’t know. But I am going to try. I may not have many opportunities to reach him, and I may not have a strong relationship of trust and understanding, but I did see a window of opportunity to present itself, and I would be remiss if I did not take advantage of it.

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