Teachers have pride. No kidding. No matter that we may be a bit punch drunk at the moment what with the fallout from two years of interrupted learning, near non-existent socialization, incredibly stressed out parents, and politicians using us as their scapegoat for all of our society’s ills. We are proud people. Especially those of us with decades of teaching behind us and folders full of certificates and glowing reviews. I’m one of those proud old workhorses. I’m proud of all the times I could count on my kids to be kind, bright, resilient (there’s that word again). Proud of what I do and the way I’ve always done it – lots of cool learning centers set up, paint out and ready at the easel, choices and opportunities everywhere and all kinds of interesting materials within reach of little learners who could take things out, use them, put them away. Proud that they’d work in partnerships, have little mini-college style writing and reading groups, proud that small groups could work together. Boundlessly proud of the calm I could always somehow summon in my classroom. So this year my ego took a major smack down. Everything had to change. Kids who lived through what these kids have lived through may lack social skills, self-help skills, self-regulation, or any sense of boundaries. Added to this mix is the reality that many learning deficits and emotional disturbances have had to go unidentified. Just think, school psychologists weren’t able to assess students who weren’t in school.
Instead of feeling like a proud conductor leading my darlings along from one fabulous moment to the next, I’ve been at times a tired and crabby soldier trying to decide which battle to retreat from. Picture months of what seemed like an elaborate game of Whack-a-mole as I called out from behind my mask – sweating and glasses fogged up – “Put that down!” or “Get down from there!” or even, “Whose been cutting their hair and throwing it on the floor?”
Given the daily dramas, bickering, materials thrown around, tantrums, and more than I can or want to name, I’ve put my pride in the cabinet where I keep the paint, the glitter, the bird’s nests, even the markers and oil pastels. Forget the learning centers. Forget even being able to walk in line without hearing one of them shout, “He’s cutting!” within about twelve feet from the classroom door.
Several of my students have been absolute champs – patient, understanding, hardworking, loving. In other words, several have been like typical little five- and six-year-olds, tearing into the learning and having easy fun with their pals. But sadly, the fun and the closeness I usually feel is just not there a lot of the time. Worst of all is the tension all of us have experienced in the presence of a few who are trying to find their way with the emotional maturity of much younger children – picture tall three-year-old’s. And two of these suffer from the near inability to express themselves. That’s incredibly frustrating and alienating for these students and has led to lots and lots of tantrums, opposition, and drama. Having to take a small child to the office because he’s throwing things or having to call for backup because one of them either ran out of the room, is screaming at the top of his lungs and hitting me, or has decided to pull every container of materials off every shelf and scatter it all over the floor. And I’ve had tantrums of my own at times. I’ve raised my voice. I’ve shut the door after school, turned off the lights, put on some music, and nursed my wounded pride while locking away or even throwing away so much of my fun materials. These are moments I haven’t been proud of. But I always end up trying to find my way back and somehow I always turn to music to soothe myself.
One of my students, whom I’ll call J, is seriously oppositional a good part of the time and is likely to be triggered into a frenzy if asked to sit in his seat or pick up his pencil – it could be anything. He’ll explode with “It was YOU!” or “Don’t speak to me!” or some other phrase he may have heard somewhere. Given his language deficit, he tends to pick up expressions that sound impressive to him and use them later – even though they often don’t really fit the moment. (If he wasn’t so disruptive I’d find him pretty charming, interesting, and even hilarious.) J is often out of the room either working with a speech and language pathologist or some kind support staff person who might be able to calm him down. When he returns I’ve had to drop everything – feeling the adrenalin rise – and try to find a way to occupy/soothe/and transition him back into the classroom while still keeping an eye on the others.
The thing about this little man is that he has an absolute obsession with music. He memorizes songs. He worships singers. And he can dance like anything. For a time, instead of writing his own name on his paper he’d write (always in caps because he refuses to learn lower-case letters) JUSTIN BIEBER or BRUNO MARS or THE WEEKEND. Okay, that really is cute, right? As important as music has always been for me, I can’t help but love this child. He’ll come to school with a song in his head and he’ll sing it all day. This part of him I get. And he is pretty cute. Plus he’s five. Just five. He’s been at times incredibly challenging to work with – but he’s by far not the only one. When he’s running back and forth or ripping things off the wall there are others who need so much help. And I have found myself suddenly transformed into That Mean Teacher – that teacher more concerned with trying to get things under control than anything else.
But we have to find our way. We’re together and we have stuff to do. And one of us has to act like an adult. No matter how I’ve felt, no matter how much of a hit my pride has taken, I want them, need them to feel safe and to feel loved or we won’t get anywhere.
Have you ever hit a wall and realized suddenly you have in you everything you need to make miracles happen – even if the miracles are to be short lived? I really wanted to find a way to bond with J. And yes, my “ah hah” moment did come rather late in the game but you might say have hands have been pretty full. (I was busy wringing out my hair.) I’ve often used music with my students – old jazz or Ragtime, even maybe some Eric Satie or Chopin. This year I found myself searching YouTube for those long, curated playlists called “deep relaxation music for meditation” or “sounds of the rainforest” to try keeping my kids off the ledge.
One day when J was out of the room and all the others were doing a drawing activity, I found myself savoring the calm. By that old clock on the wall though, I knew J was due to burst in any minute from his speech class. I found myself searching for a song to play for him – not one of his favorites but one of mine. There she was on the side bar of my playlist – the queen of smooth herself, Sade. When J came flying in I motioned him over to me and – miracle alert – he immediately climbed into my lap. I clicked play and opened my arms to my irresistible little feral boy. He leaned in and I could feel his breathing begin to calm – felt my blood pressure begin to gently fall as beautiful Sade on a beautiful beach in a beautiful dress rolled around in a dream of melodic bliss. It was a pretty song with a simple melody – one I hadn’t known before, called, “Love is Stronger Than Pride.” Thank you. Jeez, Sade, you’re so right.
Things are not the way I’d like them to be. Days are still sometimes tough and unpredictable. Everything didn’t suddenly become all better. We’ll both still have our moments of frustration. But we had a few moments that we won’t ever entirely lose and we can take it from there. I don’t think he’ll start writing “HELEN FOLASADE ADU” on his worksheets. But maybe he trusts me a tiny bit more and maybe I love him a little bit more though it is no ordinary love. And I did teach him to say, “Sade is the queen,” to his grandfather.