A Serious Mistake

I had a moment with a student this week. It was early in the morning, and this student was not feeling up to it. I entered the classroom and already I could tell that something was wrong.

But for some reason, I didn’t do anything to help him. I was in my own head, feeling self-important as I entered the room and focused on my own agenda for how the next sixty minutes would go. While I saw him and knew something was wrong, I did not let that deter me from accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish.

In my school, teachers share classrooms. While we are a one-to-one school, very few of our blocks are truly one-to-one. Even if we have one staff member assigned to one student, we often group students and staff together in the same space, even when they’re not working on the same subject. This allows the students and the staff to play off of each other in fruitful and often serendipitous ways.

So that morning, as I entered the classroom, I saw this student having a real problem, but he wasn’t my student for the next sixty minutes, so I passed him by and moved on to what I imagined my responsibilities were for that block, a combination of administrative obligations and student supervision (not teaching, per se, but supervision; my assigned student works independently that block). There were two other teachers in this shared space, so I assumed he was one of theirs, and hence, his problem was their problem.

About twenty minutes later, I noticed that the student was still sitting there, without any adult’s undivided attention, so I asked him, “Hey, who are you supposed to be with this block?” He looked up at me and said, “You.”

And then it hit me: he was absolutely right. It’s just that, until this day, he had worked side by side with the student who was working independently, and so I forgot he was assigned to me. And then, on this day, when it really mattered, I wasn’t there for him.

As soon as I realized my mistake, I immediately left behind every obligation I imagined I had and sat down with this student, made direct and clear eye contact with him, and asked him what was going on. Within moments, he had tears in his eyes, and for the next 30 minutes, we just talked. We didn’t talk about the problem directly (he doesn’t yet trust me enough for that), but we did talk about something else that was bothering him, and by helping him process that more minor problem, I believe I helped him talk about the real problem later on in the day with our school counselor (not to take anything away from the incredible skills of our school counselor, who is perhaps one of the most analytical and yet most present listeners I’ve ever met).

But that’s not the point. It’s not about the twenty minutes he and I spent together, having what I felt to be a meaningful conversation; it’s about the 35 minutes before that, when I told him with every fiber of my being that he didn’t matter (not enough for me to stop focusing on my goals anyway).

Unfortunately, at my school, there’s really only one thing our boss completely expects from us (most staff members have other obligations, but this is the big one), and that’s to be present with the kids we are assigned to. When a staff member is having an issue connecting with one of our kids, they can blame whoever does the schedule, but I’m the guy who does the schedule, so there’s no one left to blame but myself. In my capacity as the scheduler, I chose this student for this block; I knowingly committed myself to him; and that day, I forgot he was mine.

As I said, I didn’t solve my student’s underlying problem that day. And the truth is, I’ll never be able to. It’s a systemic problem that originates in the home, is diffused and exacerbated by society, and spilled onto the floor for everyone else to deal with. It’s the problem of being (or at least feeling like) an unwanted child.

Most of the students in my school have come to us as the last stop. There really isn’t anything after us except a bed in a state-run institution, and there’s not always enough beds. They’ve been told by almost every single adult they’ve ever interacted with that they’re not wanted. Many of them are in some kind of foster care, or living with non-parental relatives, or shuttled off into quasi- or state-paid-for apartments. They’ve been kicked out of every school they’ve ever attended, and sometimes they’ve even been kicked out of other schools like ours.

We are the last stop, and when they don’t make it with us, the next stop might not just be a state-run institution; it might actually be death.

I’m not trained to handle that kind of responsibility. But honestly, who is?

You might think, “Um….psychiatrists? psychologists?…you know…doctors?”

Okay, fine. But do you know how much doctors get paid? How much are you willing to pay in your taxes for some other kid’s education? Would it be enough to pay for a school full of doctors? And just one school or two? What about seven? What about 250? What about 98,271?

Until society decides to pay teachers like doctors (or pay doctors to be teachers), who are we willing to pay to be present with those kids whose next step might include a noose, or even worse, holding a loaded machine gun?

Me. That’s who.

You’re willing to pay me.

An adult who sometimes forgets what kid he’s assigned to. But also an adult who is willing, every single day, to sit down with any troubled young person and ask, with all my heart, “What’s going on?”