Being able to teach in a way that was a little different from my run-of-the-mill remedial reading curriculum was exciting. Greeting a new group of kids that included some I didn't know was challenging. Occasionally there would be an issue as a result of not having had that first-week-of-school-get-to-know-you time. And this, of course, was part of the problem with Michael.
To be honest, I don't remember why he got mouthy with me from the beginning of that class. Most likely I told him to sit down in a way that rubbed him wrong, and it was clear that he didn't want to be in that classroom anyway. Later, I would understand more: Michael was a sixth grader who read on a first grade level.
For years as a middle school teacher I have listened to my colleagues lament over "what those elementary teachers are sending us." I've also been at the receiving end of high school teachers' "concerns" about the students I've sent them. The problem is clear: there are middle school students who can't read on grade level, which is a problem itself, but because of that deficiency, they're angry. That anger displays itself in a myriad of ways. Students may lash out, like Michael did when entering my reading classroom, or they may shut down and refuse to participate in activities or do classwork and homework.
I did eventually develop a strong relationship with Michael, beginning on the very day he lost his temper with me. We had one of those heart-to-heart talks that caring teachers initiate, and then I used all of my reading assessment tools to determine what exactly was going on. As a reading specialist, I know that middle school children are usually deficient in one (or more) of three areas when they struggle in reading:
I gave him some tips for practicing his word recognition skills, including internet word games and flash cards, but he told me that he didn't need high school anyway. His father, he said, had taught him to be a master mechanic. He would be able to make all the money he needed one day, working with a skill he already possessed, one that didn't require a high school diploma. I talked to him about other benefits to continuing in school, the life skills he would learn along the way, the fun he would have participating in the social events that go along with high school.
"I don't need it," he answered.
Yesterday, while driving in our school's community, I got behind a school bus. I slowed at the flashing lights and familiar arm as it stretched across the road. As I came to a stop, I recognized one former student after another hopping off those bus steps onto the grass and it hit me: this is a high school bus!
One by one, they walked by my car and waved at me. And then...the last one...with an ear-to-ear grin...Michael.
I waved excitedly (I wanted to jump out and hug him), and as I continued down the street I kept repeating one thought in my head:
That bus came from the high school. That means Michael's still there. And he's smiling.
Maybe he'll graduate one day after all. I can only hope.