Sometimes love walks into your classroom and sits on the floor to write. Today, I walked over and sat beside her on the floor.
Me: How’s your writing going?
Her: Good. I’m writing about my parents moving from Guatemala to the United States.
Me: Oh. That sounds like an important story to write.
Her: Yes. It is.
Me: Sometimes, as a writer, we have stories we need to write down before we start
working on other things to write. I can see that it is important for you to write about your family. Do you have any brothers or sisters?
Her: Yes. I have an older sister and a younger sister.
Me: You have an older sister?
Her: Yes, but she didn’t make it.
Me: Did she stay in Guatemala?
Her: No. She didn’t make it, because there was not enough food. When she was a baby, my parents didn’t have enough food to give her. They didn’t have enough milk for her, so she didn’t make it. She died. They didn’t have enough food, so they came to the United States, and now I live in Texas.
Me: What was her name?
Her: The same as mine.
Me: (hugging her) Thank you for sharing your special story with me. I am so happy you are in my class this year, --------------.
Her: I am so happy I am in your class, too.
"Come and play with us, Ms. Rodriguez!”
At first, I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand why a small flock of students surrounded me after stepping onto the playground. All I wanted was a little sun and fresh air, while I kept watch of the play outside. All they wanted was for me to join them for a game of hide-and-seek.
“Umm… I don’t… I don’t want to.” I admitted with a smile.
They continued. They hounded. They followed and surrounded me. They were relentless.
“Come on! Come on! Come on… pleeeease.”
Their playful pleading crossed in and out of firm demands, at times insisting. It was a strange focused approach by the group of maybe eight or nine kids. And they weren’t giving up.
“Play hide-and-seek with us!”
Why on earth? I thought to myself. Why on earth would they decide to suddenly ask me to play.
“Play… I don’t… why?” I questioned, finally. “You said you missed it!” demanded one petite, but firm voice. “I… what? Missed it?” My mind wandered for a brief confused moment, before it finally came to me. I did miss it, and they knew it because I shared it with them earlier that day.
In the quiet of a room filled with moving pens and pencils, I wrote in my notebook. I sat just a few minutes to write underneath the document camera for all to see. Burying myself inside one small moment, I wrote about missing the game of hide-and-seek.
My students did more than notice the act of a teacher writing, they noticed the meaning behind the writing, hung on to it, and made the decision to do something about it. They decided to gift me a game of hide-and-seek. It was a game I played often with my two sons when they were young. I missed the game with them, and my sweet students wanted to help make a small impact, because they could. And they did. They made me smile and laugh out loud.
I played, finally. We played a game of hide-and-seek. It took them a while, but they finally found me. Today, my students found a small part of me buried in my notebook.
“Hurry up and notice,” it whispers. Whispers that surround each passing glance and shared laughter. Laughter over movies, YouTube videos, jokes, and home cooked meals.
“Mom, there’s no space at the table,” my oldest son claims, in an attempt for a separate dinner space with his brother. His eyes fall to my backpack resting in the chair. Filled plate and cup in hand, he awaits my response.
“Really? You’re going to make me use my bad arm to pick up my backpack?” I joke.
I get up, walk over to the chair, and scoop up my backpack… with my bad arm.
“Mom… stop!” My son urges with a smile for mom’s cheep shot at a guilt trip.
“Adam!” I call back playfully.
“Adam!” Calls his father in a lighthearted blaming tone.
“Dad!” He responds, returning the lighthearted blame.
“Marina!” Says my husband pleading me to stop.
“Mom!” My youngest son chimes in… just for fun.
“Ayden!” I respond.
“Ayden!” My husband calls out for no reason at all.
"Adam!" Ayden calls to his brother.
“Dad!” Adam calls again.
Our home… like a small circus. We are good at making each other laugh. We are good at it.
Our dinner scene is perfect. A picture perfect memory.
“Hurry up and notice,” time whispers. And I understand. There is love.
I learned to step into change a long time ago, but this school year was a bit different. This year, change came at me like a pitching machine in a batting cage set at high speed. And I'm sure there were times I missed a few swings.
This school year came with a bit extra. Well, more like… a lot extra. Some of the extra included a new curriculum, a new teaching partner, a newly renovated classroom, the work of moving hundreds of books back into the classroom, and the first time to speak the words, “if someone breaks into the classroom, we must be ready to fight back…” to a group of 9 year old kids.
Change can be good, but sometimes too much all at once might require time to stop and intentionally adjust… just a bit more.
On Monday, I stood at the entrance of the classroom and stared out into the environment. After scanning the room carefully in front of all of my students, I took a deep breath and announced, “I don’t like this… We need to change things.”
I stopped everything and everyone. We gathered in the center of the room and talked. We talked about all the changes that happened in our school without us, about the classroom, the feel of it, and how to make it better. I needed them to know that they hold the power to make decisions and help change things.
The changes in our school and renovations were beautiful, but we had nothing to with it. We had nothing to do with the colors, the furniture, or the lighting, among many other things. Our classroom didn’t feel right, and we needed to do something about it.
For the next few minutes, we worked. We changed the classroom, the placement of tables, chairs, and other furniture. Students spread throughout the room like a team of builders, calling out directions like, “not here... we need to move it over there” or “this isn’t working… move it there.” They argued thoughtfully, problem solved, and worked together. We talked about walking space, sitting space, and gathering space. We discussed new places for writing tools, anchor charts, and Fluffy, our classroom pet.
It was beautiful to see my young students taking charge and making decisions about the space they will spend time learning and growing. Together, we began to create the classroom we wanted, finally. It was the start of something really good.
There are times when change requires us to stop and intentionally adjust. Sometimes, it may takes us a few weeks into the school year to notice, but when we do stop, take a few steps back, and plant our feet, we can steer change in the right direction.
Change really can be good. I learned early this year how important it is for us to be a part of making change happen. Our classroom remains a “change” in progress and I can’t wait to see what will come next.
“Did you know he was a poet?” I asked him on our way to the cafeteria.
He didn’t answer me. Instead, he looked up at me, like he was caught off guard or something.
I imagine that I perplexed him well into wonder. He probably wondered how I knew who Tupac Shakur was, how I knew about rap music, maybe even where I came from… he probably paused for a moment to try to figure me out.
He shook his head gently to answer, no. The silent response came probably out of trying to make a connection between me, Tupac, and rap music. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy connection. He was looking up at me while he shook his head. It was the first time he responded, out of maybe three weeks of my daily efforts to connect with him. I took it upon myself to try each day, fully accepting that my efforts would most likely not be reciprocated.
I tried anyway.
Every afternoon, I started with a simple hello, followed by a question or two. I would ask, “How was your day?” Or, “What was your favorite part of today?”
He didn’t know me. I am not his teacher. After school, I have a few minutes to make a connection with the kids I walk out into a bus area. I’m not big on talking to people I don’t know, but around kids, it’s strangely easy for me. Each afternoon, I talked to him while he sat in the hallway, while we walked to the cafeteria, and any other time we crossed paths. No response necessary. And for a few weeks, no response came.
About two weeks ago, he wore a t-shirt with Tupac Shakur’s face printed across the front of it, in a multicolored Andy Warhol design.
“Do you know who he is?” I asked.
He looked down at his shirt and nodded, yes, without speaking. “He was like my age… How do you know him?” I pushed into conversation. "Did you know he was a poet?" I push more. After another silent response, he began to speak. “My dad… My dad bought me the shirt and showed me some songs,” he responded to me with words for the first time. I couldn’t believe he was talking to me, but I kept it together and kept calm. We began to talk. We talked about music, his dad, mom, family, family trips… and much more. I got to know him, finally.
After almost five weeks of trying to connect, he finally shared a little of his life with me. My efforts to connect with this student was fully and completely intentional, but I did not expect him to respond. I only expected to become a small moment of kindness at the end of his day. Nothing else.
Instead, our conversation became a moment of kindness at the end of my day, an honor actually, to have earned a connection with another human.
These days, I am greeted with a hug, a smile, and conversation from this student. Our conversation on Tupac, the poet, continues. Tomorrow, his day will end with something special. I will hand over a book of poetry, and I’m not sure which one of us will end the day better.
As a kid I spent most of my days playing in my back yard. “Always in the dirt with your animals,” my older sister easily remembers. I was an outdoors kind of kid. That’s where I loved to be... outside with my animals. I had my share of pets growing up. And my share of memories to go along with each of them.
Sometimes, the special things of childhood seep into our adult lives. They do for me at least. As an adult, I still have my share of pets, including two colorful koi in my back yard.
They are survivors. Most animals are, I suppose. They are the last survivors of a predatory Cooper’s hawk stalking our neighborhood―the consequences for living near a creek, I learned.
To protect them, we kept the tank covered with dark screens for the past few months. We didn’t want to chance another loss.
On occasion when the Texas sun is not so angry, I pull the screens off and sit beside them on a bench. Something about them fills me with peace. Maybe it’s the way they swim and move about beneath the water, the sound of the water, or the clear sight of the rocks below. Maybe all of it reminds me of faraway places in my memories.
Koi are beautiful to watch.
As I sat beside them, I noticed they were not alone. In the months spent protected from predators and visitors, they produced life.
There were three others in the tank. Three tiny new members of our little koi family.
Out of hundreds, maybe thousands of eggs, three little lives survived. They are, like their parents, survivors.
Most of us are, I suppose.
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When it comes to teaching, there are many hard things. One of the hardest for me is letting go at the end of the year. The more I know to give my heart and soul each year, the harder it is to let them go.
They are my kids, right? I had them for nine months, and no one can possibly know them, teach them, or love them the way I did.
It’s a truth that feels as solid as rock… that is until I meet the others who continue the work.
Last week, I met a teacher at an out of town workshop I attended.
She sat across from me and we began some small talk. I discovered she worked at the school where my students moved on to 5th and 6th grade. As we chatted, she began sharing names of students, trying to find one we had in common.
After a few unfamiliar names, she paused for a moment and tried one more. “Was X… your student?” she offered. The name caught my attention immediately. “Yes,” I whispered, nodding quietly while falling back into memories of the student, his struggles, and my hopes for him.
Writing for him was hard. I remember.
For a quiet moment, we reflected. We had something special in common. This kid was special, and we connected knowing this simple truth.
She smiled, and then quickly reached down into her wallet and carefully pulled out a red heart-shaped note. I knew what it was before she handed it to me. I often carry similar treasures in my own bag. It was a note from a student to his teacher.
In that precious note, he shared details of her impact on his learning and thanked her for teaching him.
After reading the note, I pressed it over my heart and thanked her for sharing it with me. We both knew how special it was.
It warmed my heart to know this tiny paper filled much more than her teacher wallet. He left my classroom with a love for writing. She made that clear to me. And knowing she could see through his struggle to see something beautiful in him, brought comfort.
I am not the only one in this hard work. It’s good to be reminded. There are others who do the work, and many others who love them, too.