Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Year We Survived

The day before school started, he walked into her classroom and shook her hand for the first time. Two weeks before, he had taken a bad skateboard fall and ended up in the hospital with a concussion and a broken wrist. He had a fresh cast on his arm the day he signed the enrollment form to start Wilmot Elementary.
One week before, he had driven across the country with his mom and two brothers, making their way from their old home in New York to their new one in Colorado. Life seemed upside down and fractured, since their house on the East coast hadn’t sold and their family was forced to move in shifts. He was a bundle of nerves and anticipation as he crossed into her fifth grade classroom for the first time. Her mega watt smile and friendly disposition put him at ease.
He had no real home, on the day school started. The temporary lease on a tiny condo across the street from school still had fresh ink, and Colorado life was on hold until the New York life could be wrapped up. The teacher knew of his details and kept a close eye on him the first few days, and weeks, as a favor to his mama, a woman she’d only met once.
The teacher’s own mama heart scooped up this nomad child and made him feel welcome. More than half of his classmates had shared classrooms since kindergarten but he wouldn’t know that until much later. The climate she encouraged was one of inclusion and looking out for each other.
The boy’s mama moved back to New York and left her boy with the cast to live with his daddy and high school brother. His oldest brother had been dropped off at college just days before school started. Another bit of fracture to add to a fifth grader’s list.
Through September and October he struggled in the temporary furniture-bare condo home, missing his mama, way back in New York. He snuck into his tiny bedroom closet and called her on his cell phone, asking her every day when she’d be coming back to be with them. When he’d tell her he often cried himself to sleep it broke her heart. Trying to find ways to comfort him long distance, she’d send emails to his teacher, asking her to give him a proxy hug and make sure he was okay. The mama grew to trust that the teacher was doing exactly that.
As weeks went by the boy got outside a bit. He visited bike parks with his dad and rode mountain trails with his big brother. Even through all the feelings of loss…lifetime friends he’d left behind, the family pets who were still back East, and the comforting sense of having both parents in the same house…he started to fall in love with Colorado.
The names of new friends started to cross his lips. As he’d chatter about Windham, and Luke, on his nightly calls to his mom, she started to relax a tiny bit. Making friends is one of the first steps to feeling at home.
By the end of October his mama finally (finally!) drove that two thousand mile road again, this time bringing a special cat and dog with her. Life became a bit more crowded, as another person and two animals moved into the tiny space, but the boy relaxed a bit, finally having, at least, both of his parents at the dinner table each night.
The routine of school continued. Books read. Reports written. Homework done, then signed. His mama spent her days trying to keep the long distance house in order, while making their temporary quarters as homey as possible. She saw the notes that came home in the backpack, about helping with this school project or that one, but the day to day survival took up most of her time. No one at the school, and most importantly, the teacher herself, never judged, and only encouraged. The mother was deeply grateful.
The semester changed. A new year brought new changes. A move to a more permanent house and finally all of the boys belongings showed up from far away. By the end of February his sacred Legos were once again scattered across his bedroom floor and his old familiar favorite clothes were being pulled out of boxes. Homework continued, school activities continued, and the boy started to feel more settled. Loved by a large family at home, taught and nurtured by a big hearted teacher at school.
Every time his mom stopped by the school office, to sign him out for visits to the dentist, she was met with smiles. You see, the fifth grade classroom that had been the boy’s sanctuary for the unsettled months he’d lived through, wasn’t the only place in that building where love and laughter flowed freely. The boy’s mom began to look forward to every trip through those school doors, as she knew her spirit would be uplifted by the beautiful souls who sat behind the front office desks. This place called Wilmot had a knack for attracting the best of the best.
Spring brought many school events that everyone else seemed to be familiar with. The boy’s mom would drill her boy for information he’d learned at school, and scour his Friday folder for explanations of the next big festival or school dance. Being new in a school district means having to try twice as hard to just figure out what everyone else already knows.
Many times the boy’s mom would call on his teacher, through a quick email, asking for more details and clarification. Every email was met with patient explanation.
Spring brought two big events for the boy. One cold sunny afternoon his beloved old poodle got to come visit his classroom. After promptly leaving a ‘deposit’ in front of the school (she was a nervous girl, after all), she quietly walked through the brightly colored hallways and promptly took her place in front of his class. Cell phone pictures were snapped left and right as dozens of hands patted her curly head. The boy, who had grown to feel very at home in his fifth grade classroom, was thrilled to be sharing his life’s best friend with the people he saw almost every week day.
A few weeks later the school talent show was announced. The boy was immediately ready to share his talent of song, even though the talent bucket wasn’t a deep one. His mother was a bit worried, then a lot worried, when he announced he’d also be wearing a full body morph suit for his performance.
More emails to the teacher, who promised she’d help in any way she could. These desperate emails had a different tone than the ones from Fall, when it was all about keeping the boy comforted until a mother figure could show up. These emails were more about wondering where the line was in protecting your child from laughing peers versus letting him find his own way. And although the teacher’s own child was just a toddler, she had lots of older kid experience, and successfully assured the mother that all would be fine.
And, amazingly, it was.
The teacher’s mother skills were once again brought to the classroom when the boy’s fluffy old dog suddenly died one weekend. A week after a good check up at the vet she heaved her last breath, with the boy holding her head in his arms. It was another devastating blow to the boy, one that once again needed home and school support.  The mother didn’t hesitate to email the teacher. She kept her mommy eye on the boy, as she taught math and science, and assured the boy’s mom that he was holding his own at school.
Then one day, not even a week after his lifetime best friend died, the boy was just too sad to go to school. The grief was too big, the pain grasping too tightly on his heart. The mom made one of those hard decisions and kept him home, emailing the teacher about the ‘real’ reason for her son’s absence. Instead of judgment or  criticism, the teacher emailed back, saying she completely understood, and at the end of her words she included, "Please don't ever apologize for parenting your son. We will soon be a distant memory for him; he can make up school work. He can't make up mom and family time, especially if that was what he was needing. Thank you for loving your son."
The mother was deeply touched and grateful.
And then the end of the school year arrived. The teacher announced she’d be moving from the fifth grade classroom to the second grade classroom. Either way, the boy would be moving on to middle school and rarely be exposed to her stabilizing force anymore. She’d move on. He’d move on. Both to find new adventures and new challenges.

The night of the fifth grade graduation the mom and the teacher both had tears flowing down their cheeks as the slide show flashed pictures of smiling babies who had turned into mature young students. The mom’s tears continued as the lights were turned back on, as she tried to contain all the gratitude and love that had slowly accumulated for the teacher, after nine long months of transition and neediness, laughs and smiles.

But that’s the problem with teachers. The really good ones just do what they do, day after day, caring and encouraging and loving, and never ask for praise. And the moms and dads who really need them to branch out beyond teacher duties feel bad asking for anything more. But really good teachers never flinch at such requests. They never hesitate, saying, “Of course!” sometimes even before the request is fully voiced.

Because they are people first. They are moms and dads first. They bring to the classroom their big personalities and their optimistic views of life and they pour them into our children. Fueled by an occasional mention at a graduation ceremony or a teacher appreciation day, they plug forward.

As this school year draws to a close, this year that was the single hardest year of my son’s life, I am more grateful than I can adequately express. For a teacher who recognized my son’s need, then recognized mine, and did everything in her power to help us both. She will always be one of the shining stars when I think of my son’s childhood.
The teacher who pulled us both through.  


Blessed Girl said...

Oh Judy, you write so beautifully I just cry and cry! Thanks for sharing and for being my friend!

CLAUDIA said...

Thank you so much for this beautiful essay. I've forwarded it on to my many teacher friends. Your essays bring tears to my eyes each time... in a good way. Thank you for speaking (and writing) straight from the heart!

Pattie Wall said...

I am so proud to know and have worked with your fifth grade teacher, at another school - in another time. She IS one of the best...her tenderness and caring are the most giving I have ever witnessed. I am so happy for you ~ that your family had this experience, especially your son...I feel his life will be changed because of her example and nurturing. Beautiful writing...thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

It never crossed my mind when my children loved teachers that they loved me less...I always felt blessed if they were inspired by or attached to a teacher. (from your comment elsewhere...I, too, have been a retired. My boys are 35 and 30...the younger a special educator himself)

To this essay...great, great job!! AND continued best wishes for your relocation!