Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Forever Young

On September 12, 2001, I started class by telling my students that thousands of people woke up the day before with no indication that their lives would be very different in a few hours. Many actually lost their lives; others were left to deal with the aftermath, the loss of loved ones and the loss of security that changed so many forever. Such it was with my former student Eric last Thursday morning. He woke up, got ready for school, and started his day like any other this year. But an hour into the school day his world would change. As students jumped out of their cars and off of their buses to start classes that day, a popular football player, Anthony, was losing his life in a car accident a block from the school. Eric heard the news soon after, and unable to contain his grief, turned and put his hand through a window. This particular window was reinforced with a shatter resistant mesh, but it was no match for Eric's anger.

The next day, I received this message from my former student:

"Mrs. Rigsbee,
I don't know what to do..I'm so confused right now...I'm so confused and can't believe that he is gone...I talked to him two days ago, gave him a handshake, and chilled with him."

I thought about how Eric, like those folks on 9/11, had no warning. It seems so cruel to wake up and look at the day ahead and not know that something is going to bring you to your knees. I wondered if some type of warning would allow us time to brace ourselves for the blow, or if the pain would be just as sharp.

After corresponding with Eric, I promised to go to the high school to see him. I had the opportunity to do that today, a few hours before the funeral. The school arranged to transport the students to the church so I had to manuever around the buses lined up for the football team. But once I got in the building, I was able to pick Eric out of the crowd. Even though I taught him when he was twelve years old, and he now is seventeen, he's the same Eric, only a foot taller. We hugged and he showed me his stitches. I gave him my fastest version of "How to deal with grief and anger in ways that won't hurt you physically" as he walked me down the hall to reconnect me with some other former students.

When Steve walked out of his Spanish class, I couldn't believe how big he was! He looked like a professional football player. I said, "What in the world do you eat?!" His answer was simple - "Everything," he said. Still in shock over how tall Steve was, I barely heard Eric say, "There's Tyrell." I thought Little Tyrell - he was so small in seventh grade - surely he's not so big now - only to turn and see that he's taller than I am.

It's a strange feeling. My students will always be seventh graders to me. In my memory the boys are forever goofy and short and have squeaky little voices. These men standing before me today were a shock to behold. But the scenario made me think: although these guys will always be seventh graders in my mind, in reality they are getting older and bigger and taller.

But Anthony will forever be a 17 year old senior in high school. And that's why Eric is mad.

Eric, Tyrell, and Steve

Friday, December 5, 2008

Energy Crisis

I teach middle school, which on any given day, is equivalent to the game Whack-a-Mole. I used to call it a simmering pot. I would stand in front of agitated seventh graders who at any moment would erupt to boiling. Boiling mad, boiling in love, boiling loud...just boiling. But now I believe it's definitely whack-a-mole. Whack...sit down Bradley, whack...here's a pencil, Darryl...whack...why are you crying, Lauren? Whack, whack, whack.
One day recently I had to attend a meeting held in a high school. Without thinking, I arrived just at dismissal time and placed my hand on the door as the bell rang. I froze, knowing for sure that I was about to be trampled. I turned slightly to return to my car, or perhaps to RUN. And then I saw them. High School students. Not running. Instead I stood in shock as children taller than me sauntered toward me. "Excuse me, Ma'am," one polite gentleman said as he held the door for me to enter. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I pictured what my own school must look like at that exact moment: the moles were most likely running, bumping, hitting, kicking, and screaming their way to the buses. Frantic teachers were in the halls whacking - "Slow downnnnn!" whack "Stop pushing!" whack, whack, whack....

Today I had the opportunity to visit the same high school again. There they were...sauntering seniors. The classroom I observed had varied examples of students slumping in seats. There was no simmering...no eruptions were scheduled. I even commented to the teacher about the lack of urgency in the halls as we watched the students change classes. "Yea," she said, "It's almost like they're walking backwards."

I have to wonder what happens to middle school kids when they get to high school. Where does all that energy go? Do they expend it during athletic practices, chemistry homework, the Prom? Or did the three years they were whacked in middle school break their spirits? Did we middle school teachers beat them down to this puddle of sludge? I left depressed and tired.

My friend, the eighth grade teacher, was complaining today. "These kids are too WILD," he yelled in frustration.

"Get thee to a high school," I encouraged him. "They saunter over there."

But while I was there, I was eager to get back to my goofy little moles. They're so much more fun...