Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Box Sprung Open

Earlier this week, you met 250 “C learners” in a New Hampshire mill town in the school year 1972-1973.  Today I’d like you to meet the 18 “D and F learners.”
            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. 


  1. True! True!
    And when someone does something special (which doesn't even feel special to the person doing it because they take it for granted) for someone who hasn't known that "ordinary" thing...they never, ever forget it. Even that memory can opens doors of hope and possibility years down the road.
    There's nothing like touching another soul. Or, believe me, being the one touched by that kindness. :)

  2. Dee this post touched me. When I worked for Saturn every month we had a community project we did. In Dec the project was that we split into teams and put a bike together piece by piece. Of course we thought it was a team building project but when we were all done they brought in ten kids that had never owned a bike. The looks on those children's faces, the hugs and the thanks we received and the stories they told broke my heart. One little guy was worried about taking his home. You see he had no window panes in his home. Just paper to cover them up and he was afraid someone would steal it even if he kept it in his room. I cried then realizing how much my children had even though compared to many they don't have much. My heart broke as he hugged me and told me what a nice lady I was and gave me a special rock he had made. That was 7 years ago. i still have that rock.

  3. Well, Dee, it's clear you didn't need to become a Nun to become a Saint. To those young boys, you must surely have seemed saintly! Another heartwarming and touching tale of unselfish kindness, genuine caring and great generosity of spirit.

  4. Among the many truths that underlie and filter through your work is the intrinsic value within each of us. We are the "stuff" of the universe raised to consciousness.

    Many children – many adults – live a narrative that diminishes them and their potential role in the world. Such narratives can be imposed from without and from within. Sadly, many people never break free of these destructive narratives; instead we come to believe those narratives are us, and we act accordingly.

    Thankfully, there are people like you who offer a counter narrative for those willing or able to internalize it, and a richer life awaits the few who are able to redefine themselves.

  5. You have that gift for knowing what's the most important. And in reaching out to those kids in a way that met needs no one had ever cared about before, you gave them tools and hope and joy they would never have known otherwise. I sure wish I could have seen you teach.

  6. Dee, I want to just copy what Deb said. You are a truly gifted teacher, and those kids were so fortunate to have you as a light in their lives. You are the kind of teacher we all could learn much from, and I wish I had been lucky enough to know you then.
    Instead, I am cherishing your stories, and slipping them inside my heart to pull out on days when I feel discouraged, or unappreciated.
    Thank you for your genuine, unselfish example.

  7. I googled "coming home to myself c student" and am so glad I found the posts you told me about. :)

    This story is very real, sweet and touching. When I read this part “Yes. Everyone gets a birthday this year,” I nearly cried because I know how much it probably meant to those kids.

    What an inspiration you are!

  8. I have a lump in my throat. I just got finished talking with someone about celebrating each child, and how those who have no one to celebrate them should be getting it from us at school.

    Bravo, Dee, bravo!