Where did they go?

I was cleaning out a drawer in my desk today, trying to find room for the latest materials on teaching math effectively.  Of course, that meant getting rid of old materials on teaching math effectively.  Out with the self-guided in-depth investigations problems, in with the differentiated practice sheets.

As I dug into the back of the drawer, I pulled out a blue folder, filled with miscellaneous papers that I hadn’t known how to categorize.  There I found the playbill that my students from four years ago had made to go with the class play that they had written and performed.   I sat down to look at the list of names, seeing each face in my mind’s eye.  Some I hadn’t thought much about in the years after they left my class.  But some I had continued to think about, to miss, to remember.

I wonder most about the kids who struggled.  They were the ones that I had really poured my heart into.  They were the ones who I most wanted to truly help and the ones I really loved.

I thought about one boy, new to our school when he came to my fifth grade class.  He was sent to us by the school district because he needed placement in the Resource Room for students with behavioral and emotional disabilities, and that program is housed in our school.  He was tall and handsome, and incredibly intellectually gifted.  He looked imposing and mature; he was just a bit taller than me when we met on the first day.

It took no time at all, though, to see that behind the well developed vocabulary and ramrod straight posture, there lived a lonely little boy who was yearning for acceptance.  He was often rigid and demanding.  At times he was completely oppositional.  But when I read out loud to the class, he lay on his back, his feet an inch from my chair, and stared straight at me with his sky blue eyes fixed on my face.

He and I had our run ins early that year, within the first four weeks.  I learned right away that if he had something to say, this boy could NOT be denied.  He simply couldn’t contain his ideas.  While I couldn’t have him calling out and disrupting the class,  I could allow him to express strongly held opinions.  I spoke to him, explained the situation to him by appealing to his sense of logic and fairness.  We agreed that while he could not be called on every time he raised his hand, if he raised one finger it would mean that he had a dissenting opinion, and needed to get it out. We used this system for a couple of weeks, and when he realized that I would respect his ideas and would not try to shut him down, he was able to relax.  By early Spring, he no longer felt compelled to share his every thought, but would wait for me at lunchtime, falling in step beside me on the way to lunch so that he could carefully explain his position on a topic.

By June I had come to enjoy my small debates and discussions with him, as his points were always thoughtful and well supported, if often impractical.

When school ended, to my great sadness, he moved away to Florida.  I hoped that he would get in touch, by email or letter, but he never did.

As I held the playbill in my hand, seeing his name listed under “sets and props”, I remembered him making small efforts at friendship with the other kids. Armed with bags of buttery popcorn, he was slowly learning to join in groups at play.   I pictured him now, a tall, gangly eighth grader.  I wonder if he has found a way to feel comfortable with himself and with others.  I wonder if he has found someone who can see both his intellectual strength and his emotional fragility.

I wonder if there is someone out there who responds when he holds up one finger.


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