It took me just three months as a teacher to exploit my children for personal gain. This past week, my seventh graders were roused to trick-or-treat after an impassioned speech from Mr. Taylor about how you are never too old for free candy.
Before I sent them on their way Thursday, I asked them to please keep me in mind when taking inventory of their stash. I told them that though you are never too old for free candy, there is an age where dressing up and knocking on doors for candy becomes less socially acceptable. With tears welling up in my eyes, I told my children I feared that time had come for me.
“Please,” I said, “if you can spare any candy, I would be eternally grateful.”
Rather than taking the bait, my students made fun of me. There was not a grain of mercy for their old, decrepit English teacher who just recently found his first gray hair. It was heartbreaking.
But unbeknownst to them, I always have a Plan B. Halloween just so happened to fall the day before grades were due for the 2nd 6 weeks and I saw my opportunity. “Let me put this in simple terms for you guys,” I continued. “You may not have candy for me tomorrow, but I may not have a passing grade for you.”
After I subdued a small riot, one of my students said, “You can’t change our grade just because we don’t bring you candy!”
“You may not want to find out what I can do to your grade,” I replied.
Of course, this was all in jest. I had already finished putting their grades in for the 6 weeks. But they didn’t need to know that. “Let them wonder,” I thought.
The next day, I started each class by asking everyone to pull out their candy and pass it forward.
“Come on, don’t be greedy,” I said. “Remember that we all want to pass this 6 weeks. Keep the candy with nuts; I only want the good stuff.”
I shouldn’t disclose how much candy I ended up receiving, but if you were to guess in the ballpark of 100 individually wrapped sweets, you wouldn’t be far off.
Truthfully, I know my students didn’t give me candy because they thought it would affect their grade. My kids are very thoughtful, and shared plenty of candy with each other, whether in negotiations for Starbursts or just out of sheer generosity. They’re great kids, most of the time.
I’ll be honest, though: I do wish grading them was based on something as easy as how much candy they give me. I wish I could give them an ‘A’ for every time they make me laugh or just do their homework on time, even if it’s completely wrong. But I wouldn’t be growing them as students or individuals if that were the case. And so, I grade on.
I started a game with myself where I try to grade everything and enter it into the gradebook in my off-periods before the day is over. I rarely win, but it motivates me.
The other day, I was rushing through some multiple-choice quizzes about internal and external conflict when I saw words written next to a question. It was from a student in my 2nd period who never talks to me. The most he has ever said to me is “okay” when I tell him to tuck his shirt in every day. He turns in assignments just as often as he comes to class with his shirt tucked in—never. There are days when I hand him a piece of paper and—though he doesn’t move from his seat—he has lost it by the end of class.
It was a miracle I was holding this quiz of his. And, here was proof he could write, as he had scribbled a small note next to one of the questions.
The question asked which conflict out of all the answer choices was an example of human vs. society. The correct answer was, “A. A Christian is made fun of for his beliefs.” Next to that answer choice, this boy had drawn an arrow to the side where he wrote, “Happens to me all the time :(.”
I was confounded. Out of the 60 days he had chances to speak to me and didn’t, he chose this quiz to finally share some personal detail about himself. Not just any personal detail either, but a conflict that must deeply upset him.
For a minute, I selfishly considered moving on so that I could stay on track to finish grading. It was a sad thing to share, and something I have personally dealt with, but what am I going to write back to him that could hold any weight?
But I knew from experience that when a child finally decides to open up to you, as awkwardly-timed and placed as it may be, you have to jump on the opportunity to connect with them. I wrote back two short lines: “Happened to me too. Makes you stronger.”
It wasn’t much; just seven words to say I had been there and became better for it. I was grading while he and his classmates were silently reading, so I walked the quiz over to him with a stack of other papers he had turned in only a month late. I made sure the quiz was on top, then walked back to my desk.
On the back wall of my room, I have a poster for students to place sticky notes with personal questions for me so that I can share with them when I am not in the middle of teaching. I call it ‘Backstage’ to fit my music theme, and because you only ask personal questions of musicians backstage after the show. You can’t just shout at them about their life experiences while they’re performing.
After class, I noticed that a new sticky note had found its way to the poster. Usually the questions are hilarious or heartfelt (personal funny faves include “Where do you get your shirts?” and “What does the fox say?”), so I immediately walked back to see what new question awaited me.
Four words graced the sticky note. The student who had just “talked” to me for the first time had signed his name under three words:
There are days when grading makes me hate the world. There are moments when my students are not my favorite people to be around. There are times when I question if I am getting through to the students who do not speak to me or turn assignments in.
And then there are moments like this one. I am reminded why I teach, why I cannot pass up opportunities to connect with students, and why sometimes getting done with grading and the million other tasks I have is just not as important as telling a student that the ridicule you get for your faith will only make you stronger.
I still do not know this student very well, but we have the beginnings of a bond now. Somehow, in seven simple words I reminded him that he is a soldier. And in three simple words, he reminded me that I must stand strong in my faith, which to me means I must give all of my love and service to these children even when it feels like I am at war with apathy and to-do lists.
There is a Local Natives song where the singer admits, “Every night I ask myself: Am I loving enough?” It is a question that never returns a satisfying answer for me. There is always more that I can be doing for my students, for my friends, and for my family. That being said, I constantly feel inspired to love a little bit more every day, especially when I have students who are the ones teaching me.