Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Gift at Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone!  Here is a story from my early teaching days, a story of the tremulous beauty of a child's trust and innocence.  I hope you enjoy it.

It was the late 70s, and I was a young white teacher in a school riddled with problems.  The facilities were poorly maintained, the ‘old guard’ among the faculty were shockingly blase, and the racial tensions among the black, white, and native American students often escalated into serious fights involving many students. 

Having been raised relentlessly democratic by my parents, taught to respect all people and to look out for those on the fringe, the underdogs, I entered my classroom filled with ideals that frankly amused the teacher next door - a man with nearly twenty years experience who prided himself on doing as little work as he could. “Don’t wear yourself out,” he advised me.  “The A students will get make sure they get their A’s, the flunkies will keep on flunking.”  He shrugged. 

His casual dismissal of the students floored me, which only made me part of his routine when I entered the lounge at my planning period.  The last hour planning period was a plum planning time, and the other teachers were all veterans who’d ‘earned’ the perk.  The teacher I replaced had been one of them but since her promotion to the central office had been made after scheduling had been completed, I had inherited her schedule with its prized end-of-day planning period. 

If a school could have a happy hour, the last hour planning period was it.  Little work was done by the vets, who chose to chat and party before going home.  They viewed me as a newbie to be enriched by their perspective , and my neighbour teased me mercilessly for my idealism, working habits, and passion for teaching. “Here comes Porche,” he’d say.  “She’s going to change the world, starting with 110 [my classroom number].   Come sit here and change mine!”  He’d leer teasingly and pat the chair beside him while the others would laugh at my red face.  And so it went.

In the classroom, I devoted myself to teaching not only reading but respect.  I taught ladies and gentlemen, I asked for rather than demanded their participation, I recognized a raised hand with ‘Yes, sir?’ or ‘Yes, ma’am?’  I looked for opportunities to apologize to students, something other teachers seemed never to do.  I was determined to have a classroom in which every student felt affirmed, validated, and free to risk trying - so many had given up long before I met them.  In a school where my students - all too familiar with abuse and violence and disrespect already - were at the mercy of teachers like my neighbour whose casual dismissal and racism went unchallenged by the establishment, it wasn’t easy. 

My dad was a union man who taught me that there were no small jobs, only small minds. The behaviours of other teachers at my school offended me, frankly, when I saw the state of their classrooms.  Trash cans overflowed, with trash paper in corners, in aisles, spilling from the shared desks.  The students, copying the behaviour of their teachers, treated the cleaning staff like servants; I hated seeing the men and women silently pushing the soft mops down the hall, ignored by staff and students. 

Not here, I promised myself.  Not in 110.  All paper went into the trash can and when it filled, I sent a volunteer to empty it into the large can at the end of the hall.  Paper on the floor?   If it was large enough to see, it was large enough to pick up and place in the trash can.  “The cleaner is not your mama and not your servant,” I told the students.  “She’s a working woman and deserves respect.  We show her respect by making her job easier when we can and thanking her for her work on our behalf.”

It was a new idea for them.  Like the teachers, they called her by her first name, something which in the South was recognized as a mark of familiarity or low status.  I knew which it was, and I didn’t like it, so I called all the cleaning staff by title and surname.  After all, they called no teacher by his or her first name, so why should we not accord them the same respect?  The cleaners pooh-poohed the formal terms of address, but I was firm: I was setting an example. 

All was not love-light-peace, though.  My students were understandably suspicous, and my own stubborn personality did not allow me to overlook in one what I could address in another.  Nor did it allow me to back away from a confrontation.  Eventually, though, they realized that, firm as I was - and by firm I mean  absolutely unyielding when I felt I was right - I was committed to fair play, equality, and the students  themselves. 

Some of the students got it quickly and became supporters; other students, more beaten by life, were slower to recognize my sincerity.  One student, Robert, had gotten it quickly.  A small boy, he faced some backlash for what other boys viewed as capitulation, but he was undaunted. 

By Christmas, the room was festive with bright colours and sparkles.  The mood was warm and relaxed as we worked our way through Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with a promise to let them watch an authentic version - as opposed to a cartoon version - when we finished.

One day, Robert came in bubbling with excitement. “Guess what, Miss Po’?” he asked.  Beaming, he told me that he was part of a small group of singers who would be performing at the Christmas service at his church.  “We’re going to sing, ‘Children, Go Where I Send Thee,’” he finished proudly. 

I congratulated him and commented that I was not familiar with that particular carol.  “It’s a spiritual,” he corrected me.  “I can sing it for you,” he offered.  I was delighted and accepted gladly, telling the class to quiet down for a holiday treat.

Robert went to the front of the class, calling a few names as he went.  “Y’all come help me sing,” he ordered.  “Y’all go to my church, you know it.”  They demurred, hesitant to have their worlds blend in 110. 

One of my girls got up.  “I’ll sing with you.  C’mon, boy,” she demanded, passing a few slaps to reluctant fellows as she went to the front of the room.  In a moment, I had five black children standing hesitantly beside Robert, who took expert control. 

“Y’all clap with me,” he told the class and began to clap.  Then he began to sing the old song. I caught my breath with the purity of the children’s innocence as they sang, these children who knew far too much about sex and drugs, who had personal experience of violence and racism and inhumanity - yet who sang with a touching hope that hadn’t yet died.

The doorway filled with passers by who stopped to listen, and we all clapped enthusiastically when they finished. “Encore! Encore!” I called, explaining that I wanted them to sing it again.

They did, joined by a few of the students who’d refused earlier.  This time they sang with even greater ease and comfort as they swayed and sang to our clapping, Robert doing a solo that would have done any Gospel singer proud. 

Applauding, I went to the front of the room to shake their hands and thank them. “Aw, Lord, we made Miss Po’ cry!” exclaimed one of the girl singers. 

“I only cry when something is really really REALLY good,” I told her and the beaming singers returned to their seats.  I settled the class - who wanted to spend the hour singing instead of reading - reflecting that I too had been sent, sent to these young people for whom it was safer not to care.     

We got back to Dickens, although I think he played second fiddle after my students had gifted us with their song.  Of all the holidays I celebrated with my students, this shining day was the best: the day my kids opened a door and let me peek into the tender hearts they hid so carefully.

Here is a children's choir singing the same song.

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