Saturday, March 15, 2008

Other People's Children

This week my baby boy needed me. Okay, he's not a baby. He's 24. But he'll always be my baby and the baby of the family - the youngest after three girls. This week he had a zillion issues - physical, emotional, financial, and career oriented. He just plain needed me. So I left school after finding someone to cover my classes and then drove three hours to him. All I did was pay his water bill, buy him some lunch and groceries (it was four in the afternoon, and he hadn't eaten all day), and give him some gas money. Then we hung out a little, and I drove back home. No big deal - I felt better and he felt better; he just needed a mama fix. My husband said things like "He's 24. He can take care of himself" and so on. Men don't get it.

The next day at school was a little rough. I was tired, having arrived back home at midnight the night before, and as another teacher said, "The sap is rising." Middle school children can smell Spring Break and are exhibiting the fidgetiness and conflicts that are reserved for this time of the year. Two days this week eighth graders had violent fights that left teachers and students shaken, and one day when they didn't fight, they ate their lunches watching seventh graders fight outside the cafeteria windows.

Meanwhile, in the little world that is my classroom, I'm trying everything to calm my students so that they can actually read two lines (it is a reading class, after all) and not walk around the room. I threatened my last class yesterday with cough syrup. I think I was kidding.

Anyway, this story is mostly about my student Justin. Boy, can he be nasty. He's rambunctious and can't stay in his seat; apparently his pencil is never sharp enough. Walking to the pencil sharpener or trash can doesn't present a problem for most students; however, Justin has to smack three people on the way and three people on the way back. I really believe he counts - "SMACK - that's one, SMACK - that's two, SMACK - that's three." And although he can be very endearing when he wants to be, he can also snap at a moment's notice and growl, snarl, and talk back to any authority figure who is within earshot. He can turn a pretty nice day into one of those I'm-stressed-why-did-I-pick-this-career day. My former principal called this type of student "the thorn in your side." Justin's an entire thorn bush on most days.

Yesterday we were scheduled to have a conference with Justin's mother. Justin warned me, "She's coming to cuss you out." I was ready. I had documentation in my hand when I entered the conference room. I had written down every nasty thing he had said in two weeks. I had his binder and his journal. I had stacks of pictures he'd drawn while I was teaching. As it turned out, his mother was late, and I had more time to think about the attack that was coming. Justin's other teachers and I sat around that table and waited....some of us drumming our fingers impatiently. The longer we sat, the more nervous we felt. "You think she's mad?" someone asked. "But we didn't do anything wrong," someone else chimed in. Yea, but what has Justin told her? we thought.

She walked in seconds later. I caught her eye and smiled. She didn't return the favor. She sat down and began "explaining" her problems to us. We had not contacted her as often as we should have considering the conflicts we were having with Justin. She explained that she couldn't deal with his behaviors if she was unaware of them. Our principal promised to call her in the event that there were incidents that required her attention. Then each teacher talked about their experiences with her son.

As my turn to speak came, I looked over at him sitting alone at another table, and then I glanced back as his mother. He's her baby, I thought. I imagined her kissing him goodnight, Justin with the soapy post-bath smell, and the snarls on his tongue just memories of the school day. I opened my mouth to speak and quietly balled up the documentation I was holding in my hand. I started with "He has the funniest laugh," and went on from there.

His mother looked at me, tears in her eyes, and said, "I'm sorry I came in so mad."

I returned with, "You don't need to apologize for caring about your child. I understand."

And I do. Lisa Delpit tells us about being sensitive to others in her book Other People's Children. We teach other people's babies, and from now on when that thorn starts jabbing me in the side, I'll picture my students sleeping as their loving mothers stand beside their beds.

And I'll think about my baby three hours away and hope that someone else's mother is being nice to him.


lbilak said...

I have been a reader of yours for a few months now.
I tagged you for the passion quilt meme on my blogpage.
I love your writing and your perspective.

Mr. McGuire said...

Thanks for a great post that reminded me of why we want to be teachers. Hopefully we can all help the Justins in our classes, and appreciate the concerns of their parents.

Deana Mulanax said...

Not only did the mother appreciate the positive comment, Justin just realized that there is at least ONE thing his teacher appreciates about him. Never underestimate your power to affect the life of a child!

Pom Pom said...

I have to buy Other People's Children! This is why I love parent conferences - they give me so many "ah ha" moments! I've driven up to my kid's college at the end of a long work day, too. It seems like yesterday when I was a stay-at-home mom bringing lunch money to my kids' middle school and THANK YOU for the sweet and real reminder of our high calling: MIDDLE SCHOOL TEACHERS!

Unknown said...

You rock Ms. Rigsbee! Congratulations on winning State Teacher of the Year. You have not really gotten the thanks you deserve but I want to thank you for helping my class on the Writing Test. Without you we would have been DOOMED. You have truly been a shining star in my life. Congrats and I will miss you next year. <3 loveya <3