Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Dear teachers, help me.

How do you cope with sorrow over a former student--a boy you taught years ago, when he was twelve years old; a boy who probably has no recollection of you as a teacher, who spent six months in your company, for one hour every week, and then vanished from your life?

But you remember him. He may have been the dirtiest human being ever to appear in your classroom. His nails were encrusted with filth. His clothes were torn. Everything he wore was too large or too small. He did not even own a pencil.

You spent one hour per week with him. For half an hour you taught him to sing songs. For half an hour you asked him to write poems.

He wrote the most powerful, imaginative, frightening poems you've ever seen a middle-school child write. One featured the letters of the alphabet. They were engaged in a street fight, gang warfare, and each letter had its own particular voice, and the poem revealed with a dreadful clarity that this child had seen and suffered violence, and that he was determined to synthesize it into art.

The child vanished, in the middle of the school year. This happens all the time in schools. A household disintegrates; a mother runs; children wake up in yet another strange and terrible place.

You spent one hour per week with this child, but a good portion of that hour was spent deflecting the sallies of the class bully. You were famous in the school for your ability to get this bully to occasionally act like a decent human being. You sometimes think that's why the superintendent let you stay in that job for so long. You were a bully whisperer. But the other child needed something more than civility. Something larger. Something you might have been able to give him, if you hadn't been managing the bully.

One hour per week is not much time.

And then, this week, almost a decade later, you discover two things. First, there was a miracle. The brilliant, sad, hopeless child not only survived but conquered. Other teachers in other places saw him for who he was, and they stepped up and they gave him what he needed. And now he was a student at one of the best and most famous colleges in the nation. A miracle!

But how did you discover this? Because he'd been arrested for a violent crime and you read about him in the newspaper.

Dear teachers, this was a boy I barely knew, a boy I barely helped. He was a twelve year old in my music class who wrote a poem, and then he was gone. And I am filled with sorrow.


Maureen said...

I had chills reading this, Dawn; you relate your time with your long-ago student, as short as it was, in so heartbreakingly beautiful writing.

Carlene said...

Oh Dawn. I'm am sad for both you and the boy who, apparently, was not able to fully exorcise his demons. I can't tell you how to cope, as every time something so startling and filled with sorrow like this has its own incarnation. You grieve, both for the individual person, and for so many "disposable" children in our world. You hug your own a little tighter, you work a little harder, you pray a little longer.

Thinking of you and for us all who are touched by those children. They need us the most, and they, in turn, keep us so very human.

Dawn Potter said...

I've been in touch with one of his high school teachers, and her grief makes mine seem petty by comparison.