So many students are returning to school this week (or have already returned to school), and I must say, I’m having a difficult time feeling sorry for my teacher friends who keep posting about how stressed they are. I am just way too jealous for empathy! I’m ready to be back in the classroom, planning lessons and learning new names and attending school assemblies…sigh. Having some downtime is great, except when there is no foreseeable end to the downtime. That’s more unsettling than enjoyable. But I’m trying to keep myself busy with little projects. (My China scrapbook is almost finished, and it will be a full 50-page album full of stickers and photos and mementos!)
This past weekend, my mom was talking to her sister on the phone (who happens to be a second grade teacher), and she was filling in my mom on how busy she’s been during these first days of school. After hanging up the phone with her, my mom turned to me and said, “I don’t get it. It just seems like TOO much work and stress. Why would anyone want to be a teacher?” I thought it was one of those rhetorical questions, but my mom kept looking at me and seemed to be expecting an answer. But it’s a really difficult question to answer in just a single sentence.
The funny answer, of course, is “summer break!” That always gets a laugh. But anyone who honestly takes a teaching job strictly to enjoy summer break generally doesn’t stay on staff long enough to see Christmas break. The amount of work you have to put into your job just isn’t worth it for two months of vacation time…you have to be a little more invested than that.
Let me tell you about a high school kid that I taught awhile back, who I will generically name “Billy.” Billy had a reputation that preceded his late spring semester transfer into our school. Everyone (teachers especially) whispered about how his mother was on drugs and in and out of jail, and about how his father was nowhere to be found. They whispered about his attitude problem, and how he may or may not have been kicked out of several school districts before finding his way into ours. I heard so many negative stories about Billy in the teacher’s lounge, ranging from his gothic style of clothing to his adament refusal to do any work , that I began to feel sorry for the kid before I even knew him. “He’ll never amount to anything,” I was shocked to hear more than one person on the school staff say about him, and I couldn’t help but think, “With adults like you in his life, he probably never will.” I resolved to give Billy a chance, nomatter what anyone had to say about him.
During the ensuing weeks, Billy gave me much the same attitude that he had given his other teachers. Whether or not I had decided to give him a chance, he definitely didn’t want to give me a chance. But I kept trying. I did a little digging and discovered that he was living with the parents of a friend of his because his mother was currently “indisposed.” I called these parents and we had a long chat about Billy and his future. We both really wanted him to succeed, and we agreed to work together to make that happen. I was surprised to hear that I was the only teacher who had contacted them about Billy as of yet, despite his failing grades in several classes. That gave me even more resolve to be the one teacher who would give Billy a chance.
A few days later, I went to collect homework at the end of class, and Billy didn’t have his. Rather than feeling abashed for being unprepared, he took the opportunity to mouth off to me in front of all of the students about how he hated my “stupid class” and how it was a “f***ing waste of time,” etc. I wanted to send him to the office or write him up for speaking to me that way, but I had resolutely decided ahead of time to give him a chance, so I pulled him aside into the hallway and told him that whether or not he felt it was a “waste of time,” he would definitely have that homework completed and turned in to me by the end of the day. If I were him, I would have simply agreed to get out of the clutches of my English teacher; however, Billy always had something to prove, so he defiantly replied, “Don’t hold your breath,” and walked away laughing.
Why had I decided to give him a chance? Especially when he didn’t even want one? But I didn’t give up yet.
I looked up his schedule, and Billy’s last class of the day was gym. I had the school secretary call him out of gym to come to the front office about five minutes before the final bell of the day was about to ring. Imagine Billy’s face when he rounded the corner into the office and realized it was not the lucky “get out of class early” pass he had been hoping for; but rather, his annoying English teacher was waiting in the office to grab him by the sleeve and sit him down at a desk to complete his homework.
“I’m going to miss my bus!” he said.
“Oh, your friend’s parents already told me that they don’t mind picking you up from school today,” I replied.
“You talked to them?” he asked in disbelief.
“The quicker you do your homework, the quicker you’ll get out of here,” I replied.
He kept trying to stall. “I don’t even know anything about this crap!” he protested, angrily tossing his paper onto the floor.
“I can help you,” I replied calmly, picking his paper up for him.
“Why are you doing this to me??” he demanded indignantly.
“Because I care about you,” I replied.
He snorted a derisive laugh at that, and finally put his name at the top of the paper. The homework wasn’t easy for him–I could see why he had put it off as long as possible. But I helped him through it. Eventually, the secretary’s elementary-aged son came wandering into her office where we were working, dribbling a basketball.
“Whatcha doin?” the boy asked.
“Work,” Billy gruffy replied.
“But why are you here doin work when all the other kids went home already? Are you in trouble or somethin?” the boy asked.
“Hey, why don’t you stop asking stupid questions and GET LOST, kid!” Billy yelled.
The little kid seemed unfazed. “Fine,” he said to Billy. “You’re boring anyways!”
“I hate little kids,” Billy muttered after the boy dribbled his ball back out of the room.
“Yeah, I’m with you there,” I said, nodding. Billy seemed surprised.
“But how can you hate kids? You’re a teacher–you TEACH kids every day!”
“I don’t think you or your classmates count as little kids. You’re sixteen! You’re adults now,” I replied.
Billy somehow didn’t have anything snarky to say to that. He seemed to appreciate being called an “adult.” And we had a sort of understanding after that day.
Don’t get me wrong–it wasn’t an overnight transformation. Billy still got into trouble, and he still came to class day after day after with no homework. We spent many afternoons after school working on it, courtesty of Billy’s friend’s parents. But I had chipped away a little bit of the ice wall that he had built around himself, and things with Billy gradually got better. Telling Billy, “Because I care about you,” became almost a kind of catchphrase, so much so that he would recite with me, “Because you care about me…yeah, yeah. I know!” He always acted exceedingly annoyed with these exchanges that we had, and his grumpy demeanor rarely shifted; however, I could tell that it meant something to him because he would come into class saying things like, “Mrs. DeAngelis–I actually sat down and did my homework last night! I was really bored–there was nothing on TV.” And I would tell him how proud I was. And he would say, “You know, I think you’re the only teacher that doesn’t completely hate me,” and “Yeah–your class doesn’t completely suck.” And I would smile because I knew that in Billy’s own special way, these were intended to be compliments.
About a month before the school year was over, Billy stopped showing up to school. Then I got a notice in my box in the front office that Billy was transferring to a different school district. Rumor had it that his mother was back from jail or something, and she was taking him from his friend’s parents’ home and moving him to a different town. I couldn’t just stand there in the front office listening to the other teachers rejoicing over his departure. I ran back to my room and cried. I was sad that I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to him. And I was sad that Billy didn’t get the chance to succeed, and show all those other teachers that he was worth believing in. I cried because this transfer was so incredibly unfair to him, just when he was starting to make progress and care about school. I cried and sent up a prayer that Billy would find a teacher or a parent at his next school willing to give him the time and effort he needed. As I signed his grade transfer form, I saw that my class was the only subject that he was passing.
Please don’t think that this story about Billy is indicative of my perfect record as a teacher. For every successful “Billy” story that I have, there are three more stories about “Billy”s that I’ve failed because I just didn’t give them a chance. There are just so many “Billy”s out there. And I suppose that the best answer for my mother’s question is, finding these “Billy”s and giving them a chance is the reason that I choose to be a teacher.
To all of my teacher friends out there–don’t get so caught up in the bustle and stress of the start of the semester that you miss a chance to help a “Billy” in your school. All it takes is one teacher to change a “Billy”s life forever! 🙂