My mandate from the English department chairman was to keep these young men in school. “We all know,” he said, “they’ll ultimately drop out and get minimum wage jobs. But let’s keep them here as long as possible.” He was a benign man. He meant no harm. But he didn’t believe in those eighteen juniors.
I was to teach them how to fill out the necessary forms they’d encounter throughout life. The teacher who’d developed the class had retired in May. She gave me two extremely helpful gifts—a number of board games and a stack of forms.
Some were applications she’d collected from community businesses. Others came from government agencies, banks, and credit card companies. I took seriously her suggestion to follow my instincts. In fact, I felt she wanted me to teach outside the box.
The box popped open in early September when I overheard Lon say, “My birthday’s tomorrow. A school day too. Bummer.”
That evening, I bought a cake, ice-cream bars, soda pop, cookies, candy bars, caramel corn, paper plates, napkins, utensils, a candle with a battery, balloons, and crepe paper. As you can see, I aimed for treats a teen-age boy would wolf down.
The “D/F” class was the last of the day. Between bells, I placed the food and decorations on my desk. The students entered the room, saw the pile of goodies, and asked, “What’s up, Ms. Ready?”
“What’s going to be up is decorations,” I said, grinning, “for Lon’s birthday!”
We draped crepe paper, blew up balloons, laughed, giggled, sang to Lon, ate, and played board games. We told jokes and shared life stories.
It was then I learned that this was Lon’s first birthday party and first birthday cake. Into my stunned silence, one student tentatively whispered, “Ms. Ready, are we goin’ do this again?” All eighteen looked at me as if a “yes” would be way too much to expect.
“Yes. Everyone gets a birthday this year.”
They sat bemused until one asked, “What about summer birthdays?” I assured him we’d celebrate the summer birthdays one by one during April and May.
They drew a collective sigh and sat, satisfied with their lives in that brief moment.
Of course, we did more than party that year. The chairman had provided a generous budget for books. I bought nonfiction, novels, and comic books at the bookstore. A few of the eighteen took a book home each night to read. Others asked if I’d read to the class. They listened avidly each day when I read for fifteen minutes.
During the remainder of our time together we kept busy. We read poetry. Played board games. Tic-tac-toe. Hangman. Talked about jobs. Drag racing. Their shop projects. Hunting. Fishing. Their hopes and dreams. We traded recipes for French toast and brainstormed ways to channel and express anger in safe and harmless ways.
We created class stories. As they fashioned these stories, they’d argue about how to build suspense. They’d debate the one or two details that really described the characters. When they felt satisfied as a class with each sentence, one student would transcribe it. Then they’d craft the next sentence. Later, I’d duplicate these stories for them.
We did all that, filled out those forms, and . . . we had birthday parties.
The last day of the school year, each of them individually made a special trip to my classroom to thank me for his birthday party. Such a little thing for me to do—celebrate their lives. And yet that opened them to learning that year.
Who then is “D” or “F”? They no longer claimed those identities and definitions. They were the class and the young men who celebrated one another’s birthdays. They knew their worth.
We all deserve to be celebrated.