Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Beginning Once Again

Fall is here in earnest.  Another school year has begun, the children are settling into their new classes, the weather has shifted, and autumn is in the air.  This year's change of season has struck me as particularly beautiful.  During the end of August and first week of September, New Yorkers existed under the oppressive weight of sticky humidity, as is normal for that time of year.  And then there was a tornado in Brooklyn, after which the weather broke like a fever, and we all emerged on the other side with a renewed sense of lucidity and serenity.

I grew up in Indiana and Minnesota, so tornadoes were a regular destructive force in my childhood.  I remember any number of occasions playing by candlelight in the basement, being stuck at school, school being canceled because a roof had blown off or been caved in.  Once in high school I was babysitting for three small boys when a storm came through; I snatched the boys one by one from their beds, placing them in a basement closet, trying my best not to wake them in the process.  They slept, I cradled my radio and flashlight.

But a tornado in Brooklyn...that's unusual.  Greg--also a Midwesterner--insisted we get away from all windows, so the two of us sat and giggled in the front (windowless) hallway of our apartment.  Well, I giggled anyway.  It continued to storm the rest of that day, and then the cool of fall found its way into the city, and these past few weeks have been simply lovely.  Crisp, warm, cool, breezy, sunny.  I want them never to end.

At school the children seem happily lulled as well.  The hallways feel oddly like joyous reunions during passing periods as new students are introduced to this bizarre family and past students check in to tell of the woes and excitements of their new classes and teachers.  And the halls are pointedly empty of children during class, a sign that they are in classrooms learning something.  Once in a while, though, I still encounter the errant child drifting down the empty halls, often consumed with some personal problem or another.  I love teaching a classroom full of kids, but I equally love the stolen hallway moments when we get to connect with a specific child, find out what's ailing them, see if we can help.

A few particular instances of this in the past couple of weeks have got me thinking a lot about the personal relationships educators (hopefully) have with their students, and how we are constantly leveraging these relationships to help persuade the students to be the next better version of themselves.  Because, how can we possibly hope to do this--to help them learn to be better people--if they do not trust us?

In the first instance, I was coming down the stairs when I happened upon a student, one who has been long dear to me, trying to use the elevator by unlocking it with a key no student should have.  These elevator keys are a point of contention between teachers and certain students at our school, and this young man knew he'd been caught.  I'm not sure which of us was more dismayed in that moment: he certainly did not want to be found out, and I certainly did not want to be the person to confront him on this.  He immediately began making excuses, became progressively more worked up, and within half a minute he was full-on yelling at me.  I stood there a little dumbfounded for a moment and finally reminded him that it was me that he was talking to.  "Why are you talking to me like this?" I asked him.  "This is me.  It's just me."  And with that, he stopped mid-sentence and said, "You're right," and without another word handed me all his keys.  I removed the elevator key from his key ring, handed the rest of the keys back, patted his back and told him I'd see him later.

As I left the building and walked down the sidewalk into the busyness of a NYC weekday morning, I was a little stunned at how he had immediately erupted at me; I'd seen him do this innumerable times at other adults, but never me.  And I was more stunned, and relieved, that I was able to leverage all our years together, all the trust, all the love we have for one another, and to diffuse a situation that could have easily been highly volatile if it had been a teacher from another school who had encountered him.

I don't mean to suggest that I have any special power or skill in this matter.  Rather, I mean to say that the relationships we build with the children are invaluable.  I have the honor of knowing countless outstanding educators, all of whom anchor their practice around this fundamental idea, that meaningful learning rarely takes place unless students feels safe and cared for.  And as teachers we have the privilege of watching children grapple with the small and big decisions of their life--of all our lives, hedging on the fact that they will lean against their trust in us as a buoy at these times, as a sail is buoyed by the wind, ever urged forward, onward and upward.

In lighter news: the boy who made a habit of farting in my classroom closet last year has apparently decided to continue this tradition.  Please note that he is no longer my student.  He simply appears from time to time, makes his way to the closet, shuts himself inside, and emerges a minute later to exit and carry on with his day.  It makes me laugh too much to ask him to stop.

And thus begins another year in the school, with the children, whom I adore.