The background: It was 1989. I had been teaching three years. Three years in early childhood special education where I thought I’d be content for the rest of my life. Nevertheless, after adopting a child with special needs, I felt compelled to explore the teaching life in a regular classroom. Special needs at home and at school were a bit over-whelming.
Hired at an elementary in the same district, I met my coordinating teacher, Elaine Howard, that summer before school started. To say we “hit it off” would be an understatement. In no time we were completing each others’ sentences, making plans for the upcoming year, and marveling at finding our “educational soul mate.”
School started soon enough. Teaching one of the two 5th grade classes (Elaine taught the other,) my year got off to a great start…until the principal came to my door. Her expression did not encourage me. Sure enough, the news was grim: I was to move to another campus within the week unless our numbers came up. I believe I had 12 students and Elaine had 13. The numbers remained the same, and I prepared for the move. Amidst my tears and the students’ tears, I went to the school that needed a teacher leaving a classroom of 5th graders I’d already grown to love and a teaching partner that I couldn’t believe I was having to leave.
The principal at the new school met me in the office. To add insult to injury, I discovered that these students (also 5th graders,) had been abandoned by their assigned teacher (she never showed up to school due to a salary conflict!) Three substitute teachers had come and gone; one stayed 1/2 a day and swore she’d never come back. I was being shuffled to this. I gritted my teeth and walked the long hallway with the principal to view my new classroom and new students.
I heard them before I could see them. Another substitute opened the door, and I peered past her. A room filled with 25 students yelling, laughing, and straining their necks to see who was at the door. I wanted to close the door and run away. I wanted to go back to teaching Early Childhood Special Education. I wanted to do anything but say “yes” to this classroom of unrestrained pre-teen individuals. But, I was young, and I was idealistic, and I needed a paycheck.
“Yes,” I said through gritted teeth. “I’ll do it.”
The principal sighed, running his hand through his combover. “Whew! I sure do appreciate you doing this. Luckily, you’ll have three days to get yourself ready during the Labor Day Weekend.”
And that’s what I did. With the help of my then mother-in-law, my ex-husband, and probably a few others I can’t recall, we recreated that room and made it ready for the students when they entered the door on Tuesday after Labor Day. It wasn’t easy as this room was an “overflow” room, situated in the 1st and 2nd grade hallway. The other three 5th grade classrooms were housed in a new building in another area of the campus. Not only that, this room was devoid of any teaching materials. And, if that weren’t enough, the students in the classroom were students whose parents had not gone to the office to request their children be placed in a particular classroom. The odds were stacked, and they weren’t in my favor.
Tuesday arrived along with a motley bunch of fifth graders. Many of them had more street cred than my current sophomores in the rural school in which I teach now. They had swagger, mouthiness, and a penchant for pushing a teacher’s buttons. But, yet, I grew to love them quickly. We became a family thrown together in an unlikely setting. They needed me and I needed them.
Carlos was one of the mouthiest. An intelligent kid with a lightning bolt shaved into his head, he lead the pack much of the time. I worked hard to stay one step ahead of him. Boredom created havoc when it landed on Carlos. From cleaning our hermit crab tank to staging a Thanksgiving production, Carlos needed an outlet, or two or three.
One day I decided that the students would create a product from trash. It was a self-contained classroom, and ecology was a theme we explored. I assigned the project, gave the kids some parameters, and set a due date.
About a week later, students traipsed down the hallway carting their treasures from trash. I could see Carlos down the way with a contraption that he could barely carry. Former teachers stopped to gawk. 1st and 2nd graders clamored around him as he made his way down the hall toward me.
As he got closer, I still had no clue what his creation was. He trudged into the room and set it heavily on the ledge by the window.
“Turn off the lights!” Carlos commanded. Someone did. He flipped a switch, and the large plastic cube-shaped container began turning. Eyes on the contraption flashed on and off. A song began to play. It was a musical robot that Carlos and his dad had rigged up in their garage, cobbled together from an old turntable and other items. Obviously, it was a hit. I wish I could recall at least one other project the students brought that day, but, for the life of me, all I can see in my memory is that crazy robot turning, flashing, and singing.
Eventually, Carlos went on to middle school and I ended up back at the school I started teaching in the first place with my “soul mate in education,” Elaine.
That wasn’t the last I would hear of Carlos, though. Every year, from middle school to high school, I would receive a letter from the Alternative Education school. Sometimes, I’d receive several letters a year, depending on what kind of school year Carlos was having. One of the standard assignments, I suppose, when students got into trouble and were placed for a time period at that setting, was to write a letter to a favorite teacher. Yes, I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of those letters. It was a double-edged sword, though. Happy to hear from Carlos, I worried about the trouble he was in, the choices he was making, and what would happen to him. Would he graduate? Would he end up in prison? Were there no teachers that could channel his gifts and help him to succeed?
I shouldn’t have worried. Fast forward from 1989 to 2015. This past Friday night, Carlos made his debut on The Tonite Show with Jimmy Fallon, dj-ing for Lacrae, a Christian rapper. Carlos’s path from a cocky, mouthy, creative 5th grader had led him into trouble, but he had not remained there. He figured out ways to pull himself out of the choices he had made and worked hard to recreate himself.
In retrospect I realize the impact Carlos made on me and my life as a teacher. I’ve learned to never give up on a child. You never know what he or she will become.