I got a new student today. He came with dark forewarnings - troubled past, foster care, group home, history of running away from school. He showed up today on a bus from the group home with a "dew-rag" (did I spell that right?) and a gigantic chip on his shoulder. It took me one second to look in his eyes and know...he needs us. He is supposed to be here. There is a light in this child's eyes, and I have work to do. Work worth doing. I have no idea, yet, what his exact story is, and I don't yet want to know. I'll find out soon enough.
Several years ago I had the most troubled student I have ever taught. He came to me just released from juvenille detention, having been placed there for trying to strangle his mother with a telephone cord. For good reason, actually, as it turned out. This child's story was the most horrifying I had ever heard, and his parents were beasts. I looked in his eyes...and saw only pain, fury, and raw rage that I never managed to soothe. He was like a dog that had been kicked and beaten and starved, and knew no other recourse than to bite anyone that came near. That child made every single day difficult for me. He was viper-mean to the boys, disgusting to the girls, dark through and through. And while I did my best with him, I didn't feel, at the time, that I had a chance in hell of making any progress with him. I chose, instead, to just try to make it through, be as gentle as possible with him, but to make protecting the others from him the higher priority. I felt like a failure every day, because I never felt like I succeeded with either goal.
On the second to last day of school, though, one of my team-mates in my class asked the students to write an answer to the following question: "What will you bring with you into the future from this class?" His answer was scribbled and hasty, like everything he wrote for me during that year: "I will take courage and happyness because Mrs. Browne helped me with my all of my problems and she will not know how much it mattered." He tore the paper, and pressed just that sentence into my hands on his way out the door. He didn't come back for the last day. That torn scrap of paper hangs on my bulletin board still, and always will. I look at it every single day. I still don't know what will become of that boy, but I know that whenever I have another one remotely like him, I keep that one sentence in mind..."she will not know how much it mattered."
This whole concept fills me with both shame and determination every day. Shame that I didn't do more, do better, and determination that given the chance again, I will do better. I will do more.
This boy might not have the same level of damage as the other one, and he might not stay. And I might read this in a month and want to slap myself for my plucky "I Have Confidence in Sunshine" attitude today. But I know that I will do the best I can with this new challenge, and that part of being a teacher is the simple fact that you pour your soul into your kids the best you can, and with a very few exceptions...you'll never know how much it matters, or if it matters at all.