Nothing gets me talking better than the topic of my students, and since I described a few of them last week, here are a few more, all seventh graders. Although I teach three grades, I teach these crazy guys at least three classes a day and think about them the most.
During one of our parent-teacher-student behavior meetings, I asked Antonio to be my superhero, like Iron Man, and use his power for good. Tall, attractive, engaged in an active love affair with hair gel, and cocky, Antonio is the obvious leader of the class. He doesn’t walk across the school yard, he struts. During a game of grammar tic-tac-toe, his teammates sought his approval prior to placing their mark on the board. Jojo refused to compete against him in a review quiz game. When the first grade English teacher substitute taught my class this week, due to some scheduling craziness, and she was glaring at him for silence, he commented that she must be looking at him because he was so good-looking. He is confident in his immortality.
Of all the kids, it’s most difficult for me to remember that Antonio is still a child, because he’s tall, because his spoken English is fluent, because his defiance is strong, and I, a neophyte, easily fall prey to his manipulation. I roar internally in frustration at his academic scores because he’s smart but thinks he knows everything and always races to finish his work as quickly as he can, then bother those who aren’t finished. He could do much better, but he’d rather comb his hair and chatter. He laughs loudly when others make mistakes, which further discourages students from risking themselves. He’s also a baby and, I suspect, babied by his mother. Whenever Antonio is chastised more than he thinks he deserves, he puts his head down and refuses to talk. If given detention, he pouts and threatens, “I will not come.” When asked to write about an awesome person, Antonio wrote about his mother, whose awesomeness stems from her giving him whatever he wants.
Yes, he’s a kid, a popular kid. I struggle to like him. He probably taps into the wounds I retain from my own middle school years. He can be charming, but it’s a power struggle, always, and I often hear his protesting voice in my head. When I can find a moment of vulnerability, like when I catch him needing help with something, I spread my teacher-gifted-with-knowledge wings and flash them in an attempt to blind him into humility. Despite how middle school theresa may feel, Teacher theresa does care. He’d make a good politician. I just want him to be an intelligent and kind politician.
There are students closer to my heart than others, and May is one of them, mostly due to the near deadpan inflection of her English, which renders her work protests hilarious. She shakes her head and tells me, “Miss, I don’t understand,” with a strange little lift at the end and a flat-lipped, embarrassed smile in her half-turned face as if this is a strange thing I have caused, this not understanding, and she’s casting it off to me to do something with that information. It stems from insecurity and a self-rooted assumption that she will not understand whatever I’m teaching. I’m not sure why she feels this way, and it may be my fault. Despite months of being with this crew, I still am unable to gauge the difficulty of my lessons. So before quizzes and exams, when I remember—increasingly difficult with my sieve of a memory—we review during lunch time and she passes, whatever the topic, or she doesn’t. She works hard, I think. May is a Good Student, not great, but good. I don’t often enough see her smile and I will tease her and turn myself on my head, in our free moments, to find it in her sweet face, that wrinkled-up nose, averting her eyes. I often want her approval and wish I knew her better.
She loves to make cakes…if only I could get her to make one for me.
I am the only volunteer teacher who is fond of her. Big, loud, and a school hater, Krissy is a bully. She frequently and at high volume disrespects her teachers and kicks or punches other students. Hers is another voice I hear in the quiet and it often says, “Miss, but I no want to!” Another volunteer proclaimed that Krissy is “just too much.” I suspect I love her for a vulnerability that is rarely revealed.
Early in the year when I’d allow the students to find relief from our stifling and loud classroom by working outside, Krissy’d wander away and bother other classrooms. I confronted her and explained that because of this tendency I couldn’t trust her, despite wanting to. I’m not sure why, maybe it was my speaking to her seriously and honestly, but our relationship after that changed. She started trying more and looking my approval. If I gave her The Look, she’d stop talking, for at least a second, and work. She’d argue less. And we built this relationship where if Krissy gives me crap, I can give her crap right back:
K: Miss, it is so hot and boring.
T: I know, Krissy, but you are young and strong and in my heart of hearts I believe you will survive. Can you? Can you make it through this rough day?
K. (Smiling) Oh, Miss, you so crazy.
And she’ll try…for a minute.
Krissy is the biggest—okay, fattest—kid in school. At a parent-teacher meeting, her aunt mentioned that the family couldn’t get her to stop continuously eating. Her aunt suspected stress from school. When we were studying earthquakes in Science, an eighth grader joked it was Krissy walking. During a writing exercise where kids had to write a sentence then fold over the paper and pass it to another student to write the next sentence, someone compared Krissy to an elephant. And Krissy, big, strong bully Krissy, who never shows hurt from these comments, was upset. My middle school self, one that was also relentlessly teased, the memory of which struggles against Antonio, hugged her. My teacher self struggled to find a solution and felt inadequate.
Krissy’s family is a good one. Her mother is a dentist, her father a mechanic. Both care for their daughter, though seem confused at times by her behavior. Krissy now sees a psychologist, though I’m curious if she actually talks to him/her, because it’s difficult to get beyond the superficial. Krissy excels in math but hates Science and English. (This post’s picture is what I drew on a quiz when she wrote that a plant could reproduce with sports, not spores.) She has great listening skills and is fluent, if grammatically atrocious, and her writing and reading skills are weak. Recently I started tutoring her once a week, and while she’ll lie slickly to wiggle out of it, to the point that I call her mom if Krissy tells me tutoring has been cancelled, our sessions are fun and she’ll play along. I suspect she enjoys the attention. I enjoy shocking her, such as by telling her I used to dye my hair all sorts of colors. I love her incredulous smile and her look of surprise when she gets something right.
If the other volunteers spent as much time with Krissy, I wonder if they’d change their minds about her. They see her picking on their little kids and protesting their instructions at top volume. I see these things too and daily get on her case for physically responding to a slight. But I also see how she is picked on by others for her size and poor vocabulary, and while I don’t see it, because it’s hidden, I know this hurts her. And, I suppose, I like her because she likes me and I’ve figured out, a little bit anyway, how to work with this girl who’d much rather be at home watching Calle 7.
And those are three of my kids.