I am lucky that I live only 1.9 miles from the school where I teach. I mean, who can beat that commute, right?? Seriously, the car barely has time to warm up and I’m already pulling into the parking lot to begin my day. I can sleep later than many of my colleagues who have to travel close to an hour each way, traffic willing. But, despite these overwhelmingly awesome gas-saving, sleep-begetting benefits, the biggest perk, for me, is actually living in the district where I teach. My son attends a district school as well, so I am the trifecta of public education in New York: employee, parent, and taxpayer. Dare I say, all of my “eggs” are in the Wappingers Central School District “basket.”
Some of my out-of-district friends think that my proximity to school is a disadvantage and they cannot imagine living in the same vicinity as their school. They don’t particularly care for being seen around town by students and parents. I, on the other hand, put this in the “pro” column of the working balance sheet. Hearing “Mrs. Zandstra!!!” across a parking lot, mall, movie theater, or restaurant sparks in me an excitement to see who it is, what they’ve been up to, how they’re doing. In the last two days alone I ran into five former students.
Last Friday, after returning home the day before from a 10-day Florida vacation with my family, I had a fun lunch date planned with two friends at a local restaurant. A waiter at the restaurant, Nate (all names have been changed to protect anonymity), was in my 9th grade class eight years ago. He greets me warmly when he spots me. He beams as he tells me how much he loves working at the restaurant and how he loves seeing many of his old teachers so they can see he turned out okay. At the same restaurant, I also see Siobhan having a birthday lunch with her grandparents. She has just graduated from college and is “super-excited” to begin a new nursing job at a prestigious hospital next week.
On Saturday, I ran into two more former students at the nail salon. Sarah whipped out her phone to show me pictures of her 18-month old daughter. Kaylee, who just graduated in June, let me know she is leaving for college in “SIX DAYS OMG!!!” I stop at the grocery store on the way home and see Patrick, also newly graduated, who beams with pride as he tells me about how he has been working and “is having the best summer ever.”
When I think about all of these former students, I don’t recall the scores on their tests or their most common grammatical mistakes. I can’t even remember their favorite books or the stories they wrote. Just like they don’t remember the lessons I taught or the bulletin boards I had up. What I do remember about these students, and what I hope they remember most about me, is the bond we shared because of the relationships we formed.
In 9th grade, Nate found out that he had a previously-unknown half sister. Early in the year his family arranged a meet-and-greet for him and this new 20-something year old sister. Nate was so excited as the day approached. He even showed me the necklace he bought her with what little money he had. On Monday after the weekend meeting, Nate arrived in class subdued and kept his head down for the period. His sister had not shown up for the meeting and Nate was crushed. As he explained to me later what happened, he told me he gave the necklace to his grandma instead because “she was sad too.” Nate had several brushes with the law during high school and after, but he always had a kind and tender heart. Poverty was a major challenge for Nate’s family and I know that a steady job did a lot to help him. I was glad to see that he had found some financial independence in a job that he loved.
Siobhan graduated a year early. Her parents’ ugly divorce made her want to escape the family crisis and pursue her passion. She used to come and just sit in my freshman classes during study hall in her last year in high school just “so I don’t have to think about anything.” Sarah was my student in only my second year of teaching when I taught 8th grade. I remember her coming to first period one day crying. When I asked her what was wrong, at first she didn’t want to tell me. “Nothing,” she said with quivering chin and watery eyes. I didn’t give up and she finally broke down and told me that the family dog died the night before. Kaylee and Patrick have been my students most recently. Kaylee is athletic and smart, and also one of the kindest students I’ve ever had. She suffered in silence for weeks as I, unknowingly, sat her next to a girl that “she just didn’t care for.” Once she finally mustered up the nerve to ask to have her seat changed, I remember how careful she was not to say anything mean about the girl. And then there’s Patrick. Ahhh Patrick, a student whose voice I barely heard. He rarely spoke and when he did it was barely a whisper. I never knew too much about Patrick personally, but he struggled academically and his confidence suffered as a result. As he moved out of 9th grade, he would still come to my room for extra help after school on writing assignments in his English classes because of his embarrassment to let many teachers know how difficult writing was for him. With motivation and perseverance, he received his diploma and a place in the working world. He is so proud because the work he’s doing now he is doing well and he knows it. He shines at his job in a way he never could in school.
As we begin this new school year, let’s take a moment and remember that these children on our rosters, seated in front of us, are not merely test scores, lexile levels, or grades in the gradebook. They are talented, sensitive humans who deserve for us to forge relationships with each and every one of them. They have anxieties, insecurities, and and a whole host of other emotions swirling around in the tornado that is adolescence. Don’t expect them to be perfect every day. They won’t be. Neither will you. Listen to them, talk to them, guide them, and let them know that you care about them. And when you hear your name shouted from afar years from now, you’ll both be excited because the ties that bind you are not solely academic, but rather built on a foundation of care and trust.
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