Friday, July 27, 2012
As the beginning of the school year creeps closer and the stores are filling up with pencils and pens and notebooks and binders, I start to miss teaching just a little bit. Before I became a mom, the time of year right before school started was very exciting for me. I'd scour the ads and stock up on staples for my classroom. My mind would be filling with ideas to make the year in my science classroom the best yet, and I can honestly say that each year of teaching for me was just that- even more fun and productive and even slightly less exhausting than the last. I would spend hours setting my classroom up, running copies to beat the teacher work day rush, and of course, planning all of my outfits for the first two months of school so that there would be no repeats. On a calendar. 'Cuz I'm cool like that.
As the school year began, I would hand out the list of supplies to my kids and throughout the first week of classes, I would walk around the classroom with my clipboard during the bellwork activities getting to know the kids and checking off their school supplies on my clipboard-
binder, calculator, paper, book cover, pencil, textbook- check.
It was really important to me to make sure each student was equipped properly for the semester ahead and for each day of my class, so I was always, always checking their supplies. I am sure it drove them crazy, but with the students I taught this kind of structure was essential. If they know you are going to hold them accountable, they will perform. My students worked in cooperative groups of 4, and as I went around each table that first week of class there was always some awkwardness among the kids, sitting and staring at people they had never met before in a class they weren't sure about. Most of the students in my class didn't know each other and I always saw it as my job to build a community in that room in the short time of our semester together. If I could get the kids to care for each other and look out for each other it could be the best feeling ever. Fortunately for me, some of the kids managed to take care of that themselves.
One early morning in Block 4 Integrated Chemistry-Physics, I was clicking around the room in my high heels checking off supplies. I got to the last table, the one that sits right in front of my overhead projector and start chatting with the kids. As I did, I noticed the desk of one boy, a junior named Matt, was decidedly empty. Matt was small and wiry and had an appearance that was already a little weathered beyond his 16 or 17 years- that general look of a kid who does most of his looking out for himself. I could tell from his T-shirt that he liked the Grateful Dead and from the way he spoke that he was smart, but I could also tell by his behavior that his grades might never show that. From my first impression, I liked him right away and I knew he might challenge other people's authority but that we would get along just fine. I could see him shuffle and squirm in his chair as I got to his desk, which is a look I had seen often before so I smiled and gave him the ol' one-raised-eyebrow and asked if he had a chance to get his supplies yet. He looked down and his desk and then back up at me and said, "Well, Mrs. Zink, my mom doesn't get paid this week so I don't get any supplies just yet." He could have been lying or he could have been telling the truth, but either way it was brave of him to say that in front of a table of kids he didn't know who could surely overhear. I had heard that story many times before and had a special stash of supplies in my room just for money situations, so I told him not to worry and we would work something out after class. I gave him a binder and a few things to use, and when I did he said, "I'll just borrow these and get my own supplies soon." I told him there was really no need and didn't think another thing about it.
Fast forward a few days, when another boy, Cory, from my 4th block class comes to me before school. He seemed to be a newer student, and I could tell that he didn't know anyone else in our class by the way he looked around and mostly kept to himself. He was shy, and very sweet, with a baby face and reddish hair and that sort of awkward hunching over teenage boys have when grow really tall, but they feel too tall too fast and try to overcompensate. He walked up to my desk, handed me a plastic bag and said, "Mrs. Zink, could you please give these to Matt?" It was a Target bag and inside I found binders, pens, pencils, papers, a reusable lunch bag and anything else Matt would need to succeed in school. I gave Cory and awestruck sort of look and he started to explain. "Well, Mrs. Zink, I saw him in the lunchroom after class the other day and he had this wrinkled up old paper bag for his lunch with hardly any food in it. I just felt so bad. I asked my mom to take me to get him a real lunch bag and some supplies and she said we could, but I just don't want him to know they were from me."
And who says teenagers are self centered?
My eyes started to fill with tears. I was pretty sure that Cory and his mom didn't have a lot of extra money for things like that, but the fact that the compassion for another person was so deep inside him that he couldn't help but act completely humbled me.
I gave the bag to Matt's guidance counselor, and she called him down to the office to get it. I am sure he stammered some sort of response before he shuffled back to his locker with his goodies from some mysterious benefactor. I wish I could have been there as he went through the bag. I don't think anything feels quite as good as the kindness of a stranger, and it sure makes you feel special and even more accountable when that kindness comes anonymously with no strings attached. The next day, when I made the rounds for supply check block 4, Matt's desk was full up. I enjoyed acting pleased and surprised. I could tell there was a little bit more awe in his eyes and more softness in his spirit after that. And I smiled to myself as I saw Cory sneak a look over to his tablemate's desk, see his anonymous gift, and hold his shoulders just a little bit higher. That beautiful act of kindness among two teenage boys will live in my heart forever. Cory's giving when he had little himself, with no recognition or hope for return, is the kind of generosity we'd all like to have. So, if you ever lose hope in teenage boys, there's some for you!! Thank you, Cory and Matt!