Thursday, February 21, 2008

Springtime Memory

It's not spring. In fact, there's a "winter weather advisory" today. But I can see some buttercups outside my classroom window (William Wordsworth would say "a host of daffodils") and those mean spring. Every spring I begin having the same thoughts...thoughts of Brian....

It all began in 2001 when I sent an email to my stepdaughter, Heather, who had graduated from high school with Brian in 1996 and her husband, Chad, who was in the Marines at the time. It went like this:

One of the joys of teaching is that everywhere you go for the rest of your life, you run into someone you taught, a relative of someone you taught, or someone who knows someone you taught. This morning I was having breakfast with a friend when I recognized the waitress as Letitia, the sister of my former student Brian.

Brian was in my seventh grade language arts class in the 1990-1991 school year. I had him 4th period. How do I remember that? Because I had the entire junior varsity football team 4th period! I told Letitia that on game days, the players would wear their jerseys to school, and the entire room would turn red.

Brian was a good-looking guy and a talented football player. Schoolwork was not his favorite activity, but he did it, knowing that I would talk to "coach" if he didn't. He did an average job on that work, but he played football like a hero...with a passion that most seventh graders haven't yet found. He was also polite and had a smile that never left his face. No matter how hard I was on him...for forgetting his homework, for talking about football instead of doing classwork, for begging me daily to take the class outside so the boys could throw a football around, he would sit and grin at me. On the days that he would wear me down, and we would go outside after lunch, he was a natural leader, breaking everyone into teams and calling plays.

Letitia broke into my thoughts, saying, "Brian is in the Marines now."

Do you know how that feels? Someone reaches into your memory, pulls out a seventh grader, and makes him a man.

"They can't break him," she said. "But they're trying."

I thought, "Nope, they won't break him. They'll try, but he'll just grin..."

Then I thought back to my 4th period class of 1991. There, in the back, looking bored, and counting down the minutes to the football game, sits Brian Anderson, future Marine.

In April of 2003 (the beginning of spring), I found a copy of that email and added the following:
Today I was given news that hit me straight in the gut. Brian, the Marine they wouldn't "break," was killed last Wednesday outside of the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. I think of all the cliches - he loved what he was doing, everyone who knew him is proud, the world will be an emptier place without him, and so on.

But mostly, I think of that grin...and when I look back across that 4th period class, the last desk, in the middle row, is empty.

This will be our fifth spring without Brian Anderson. But I have learned something important. Now I look at my seventh graders not so much for the lanky legged, giggling kids they are now...but for what they will be someday.

Rest in Peace, Brian.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Jesse and Mary, Quite Contrary

I remember when students didn't talk to me. I would teach until my throat ached...explaining how to determine rhyme scheme and how to write in iambic pentameter, but they wouldn't say a word - to me. Oh, they would talk plenty to each other about all things teenager. But I was just Charlie Brown's teacher waa-waa-waa-ing in front of the room.

Now it seems that someone has directed middle school students to talk to their teachers. "Stand up for yourself!" someone said. "Express your opinions!" said another. "Argue if you have to!" was thrown in, too. So this is how I spend my days....explaining, justifying, and preteens who still sleep with stuffed animals.

Here's how my class went this morning:

"Did you bring us any candy for Valentine's Day? Why not? It's only three days away. And we've been good, and when we're good you have to give us something."

Little extortionists.

My next class delivered all of my favorite expressions - they're my favorite because I have a quick comeback.

Student - "That's not fair."
Me - "Fair is a weather condition and an event that comes to the county in the fall."

Student - "This is boring."
Me - "I'm not here to entertain you; I'm here to educate you."

...which brings me to my problem today. Teachers have done such a good job of making learning fun, that the little blackmailers refuse to work if it isn't. Here's my afternoon with Jesse:

First of all, let me say...I thought the students would love it – a FUN Valentine puzzle. Word puzzles are great in a remedial reading class - they build vocabulary! The students were to do simple subtraction, look at the answer, and match the number to a letter in the alphabet. It was a code that would become a Valentine message of love. Jesse approached my desk where I was conferencing with another student.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” he demanded.

“It’s a little math puzzle…”

He interrupted me.

“I hate math!” he proclaimed to the world.

“Jesse,” I pleaded. “It’s simple subtraction. Just do the problem and match the answer…”

“I hate math!” he whined louder.

“Okay, look. Don’t think of it as math. Think of it as breaking a code. When you figure it out, you’ll have a message.”

Jesse turned on his heels, threw his chin in the air, and yelled at the world…

“Is the message ‘I HATE MATH!!?’”

I thought back to my own sixth grade class and how my teacher would give assignments. We would do them without question, without confrontation, without complaint.

Oh, for the good old days.

Just then, Mary brought a stuffed Valentine dog over to my desk. "I can see that Jesse's giving you a problem. You can sleep with this tonight." She started to walk away but stopped and turned toward me. "But if you mess it up, you'll have to get me another one."

Good grief.