I had a student once, just a couple of years ago. Here's what I knew about him then:
He didn't talk to me. He didn't even really talk to his classmates that often or that loudly, but he especially didn't talk to me. I wasn't sure how he felt about me -- if I freaked him out, if my jokes were simply terrible, if he was bored. When he spoke, it was because I asked him a question. There was occasionally a shy smile, but he was mostly head down, serious, determined, and, yes, fairly silent.
He was in band. He played soccer. He loved the Dallas Cowboys. He liked to doodle and draw. He was meticulous and careful and prepared.
He was a teacher's dream -- sweet, humble, quiet. So quiet that it drove me crazy. It drove me crazy because I didn't really know him. Since then, I've wondered if I did right by him. Do I teach kids like that or do they just absorb what they can while I manage the chaos around them? This is my constant worry as a teacher. With kids like him, I worry double because they're too kind to speak up and demand more for themselves.
I got an email last week from my friend, Bryan, our band director at school. This kid, this wonderful and kind kid, has been diagnosed with leukemia. Not that I think the Universe should go around handing out terrible diseases as punishment, but let's get honest with ourselves, I'd much rather see some pedophile or wife-beater in that hospital bed than this kid whose worst crime is probably not completing his summer reading for World Geography class.
I've fumed about it for several days. This is what I do about things I cannot control. I fume. I am often outraged by my lack of control.
Tonight, his 7th grade English teacher, his 8th grade English teacher, and his junior high band director, showed up at his door. What he didn't realize is that for all the moments leading up to that visit today, we were confused. What do we do? Where do we go? Where are all the parking spots in this crazy hospital? We were also pretty scared. How is he feeling? How will he look? What has been happening? And, most importantly, what are we going to talk about with this kid who doesn't speak?
It didn't matter. Bryan went through the door and was met with an excited, "Mr. Stein!" And then, "Coach Naz?" followed by a "Mrs. Simpson?!"
And the biggest smile I've ever seen on his face.
He looked thinner. Tired. He kept adjusting and readjusting his baseball cap and fiddling with his hospital bracelets. But his head was up; his smile bright. And he talked to us for 30 straight minutes.
About his diagnosis and treatment, he knew every detail. It didn't shock me because he's an incredibly smart and attentive kid, but there's such a sadness for a 14 year old to have so much knowledge. It feels far too heavy for those shoulders.
About the hospital, he assured us that the people are nice, but he's ready to go home. I think his poor mother is too.
About high school. As a small town girl, I am still intimidated by the size of Lamar High School, and I've always wondered how a kid so shy takes on such a thing. Yet he's enamored with how many new people there are to meet, how many opportunities there are to seize, what different challenges present. He won't be able to go back to finish his year at school, but he's expecting bigger and better things for his sophomore year.
About marching band, he gushed. On the wall was a giant poster. As he talked about his friends, both those that he has only met this year and those that have inspired him since elementary school, he pointed out their well wishes and signatures. He loves music, and he has found a family within the band. To see him so happy, especially in such a tough situation, made me just want to hug each and every kid in that band.
I went in tonight expecting us to muddle through, to attempt to bring some sort of lightness to a dark and scary moment, to just do the best we could. To be adults because adults know what to say, right? To be teachers because teachers have all the answers, right? To be some sort of saving grace because what else can you be?
We didn't even have a chance because the kid in the bed, the kid with the i.v. line and body full of cancer-fighting poison, the kid who never spoke -- he spoke to us. We came bearing gifts, but it was he who gifted us. We came with questions, but he shared his answers with us. We came with fear and doubt, but he banished them with that same familiar smile. Only it wasn't so shy this time.
I got lost on the way home. I'm easily lost in unfamiliar places, but the hospital is literally less than 5 miles from my house. I was unfocused, and when I did find myself on a more recognizable path, I sat in traffic for almost an hour. I had expected to fall apart after our visit; I build walls against crisis only to crumble at the first private moment. I didn't, and I couldn't wrap my head around why. I'm still not entirely sure.
Before our visit, I could only think about the student I thought I knew 2 years ago, but here's what I do know about our student now:
He's wise beyond his years. He has a clarity that is startling. He sees the beauty and strength in others and draws from it himself. He has many friends. He's still a teacher's dream. He still finds time to doodle. He seemed lighter, wiser, but still pretty determined. And he's silent no more.
I had expected him to wilt. Instead, it's almost as if he's finally blossomed. How does that happen? I am still shaking my head over it.
Did I teach him anything when he was in my classroom? Probably, but it took me 187 days. He managed a great deal more in just half an hour. How did that happen? Man, that kid drives me crazy.
Get better soon, E. There's a big world waiting, and it needs you.