Monday, January 24, 2011

A Tie of Mourning ...

I wore this tie to the funeral of a former student, because "Taz" reminded me of him. The following was written the night I learned of his death.

Please forgive us teachers. We are not cynical or depressed by nature. It might be easy to understand how we sometimes can appear that way. We give of our time and wit. We struggle to point all kids in the direction we feel is best for them. We work hard to do our jobs the best way we know how. Yet sometimes we are meant with a disappointment that we just can’t avoid.

Oh don’t feel sorry for us, though. To paraphrase a wise educator and former superintendent, “We volunteered for this duty.” Something in our drive and internal motivation has led us down this path. I believe that has to be an extremely high level of caring. Faith, Hope and Love: each a large aspect of the caring we have for all of our students.

Every teacher has difficult students. Every difficult student has their own story. Those stories are important in their own right, but to the teacher, it can’t matter. We have to care for all. We have faith that they will turn out right, hope that we can help them find their path, and love for who that student can be.

One such student is strong in my mind as I write this. He was difficult, but he was worth it. He was one of those learners that forced a teacher to “modify” their approach. Thank God for those students. He was not usually a discipline issue, but needed to learn in his own way.

He walked into the room with a great smile and always said Hello to me. Often he had some witty comment or silly thought that played off my joking personality. He’d actually look at me, too. You know when you have a person that is talking to you and they really look at you while you are having a conversation? This kid did that. It confused me a little, because I always thought he lacked focus –and I think he often did. Later I reasoned that it was a learned behavior of his that he had unconsciously developed to help him focus on the person he was interacting with. On top of that, he could move his pupils back and forth rapidly and really freak you out. I was impressed that anyone could do that.

This student was the subject of many conversations and strategy meetings amongst my fellow teachers and myself. We questioned if we were doing him any good. He didn’t fit the traditional setting. He managed, but fought with low grades and missing papers. Sometimes he acted like he didn’t care, and other times he showed that he really did want to do well. He forced me to spend more time on projects and story-telling rather than notes and tests in our Middle School Social Studies classes. For that alone, I owe him.

I remember one “heart to heart” talk I had with him. He was aware of his problems and truly wanted to do better. Those that know me, know that to really be serious is somewhat off the norm for me, but in a true sit down “heart to heart” I can get pretty somber. This particular time I was even coarse. I said, “Dang it, [kid] is this really what you want people to see in you? Why aren’t you trying to do better?” His reply was that he wanted to but it was hard. I continued, “What are you doing to help yourself? Are you trying to get more organized? Working on assignments outside of class? Asking for help?” It bothers me that I don’t remember what he said in return. There was more conversation, and even some tears. Yet it was what he said at the end that stuck with me the most.

After all that rough talk and grilling, he really looked at me and said, “Mr. Nelson, I like you.” Usually I am flattered by that, but this was out of context. Not out of character, because he was a pleasant kid most of the time.

“How could you, right now?” I asked.

His response as he walked out of the room: “I know you care.”

To hear that is every teacher’s hallelujah moment –but that was unexpected. When it is said from a student like him, you look back and wonder if you did what you could for him. There were times he did try hard, he did show up with all his materials, he scribbled away at his homework between classes, and times he tried to get my attention. What did I do meet him halfway?

Literally, it takes the air out of you.

I felt like that again Sunday. I heard of his death through Facebook postings. I asked a colleague that spent countless more hours than I working with him, if she knew the details and she filled me in.

It took the air out of me.

There were so many people that helped him on his way through school and into “real life.” So many people that in return were rewarded by his smile.

His class has a special place in my heart. They were my first sixth graders at Skyline and I had the pleasure of following them in either Math or Social Studies for all three years of Middle School. They were a close-knit group and full of great times as well as challenges. We became close from the shear fact that we had so much history together. They have since graduated and moved on, but I can’t help feeling that a part of the group is missing.

He has left behind his legacy. His two children will no doubt share the same smile, and I know his mother and sisters will be able to share with them how hard he worked to be a better person. That’s something they should be proud of. For me I’m proud of him, but disappointed that his life ended so abruptly. It was just too soon. I will be glad to honor him in prayer, and am thankful to have had him as part of my life.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Michael for putting into words what my heart feels. Reminds me again how much I cherish seeing my kids every day for years and years... Special.


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