Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tears are good. Even in English class.

I had a very touching moment in class this week. Right around this time every year my kids do a memoir project. They choose a story from their lives to write and present to the class with a physical object that represents something in their memoir. I've gotten a whole host of stories and topics, and they are riveting. It's probably my favorite assignment of the entire year. My kids seem to enjoy writing their own stories. Some of them are a little reluctant to share at first, but in the end, the class period that they make presentations ends up being a really fun and interesting one for all of us. Some of them are hilarious. Some of them are really dramatic and violent. And I usually have a couple who need an arm around the shoulder and a soft squeeze of solidarity to keep the tears from coming.

And this year the tears started early. I tell the kids way ahead of time that they can pick any topic they'd like to write about. They can tell any story from their life that they would like to tell but to keep in mind they will be sharing it with the class. Some kids don't mind getting personal and some do. I let them choose.

A couple of months ago I had the (unusual) pleasure of chatting with the father and aunt of one of my students. The kid is an excellent student, and I know I can always count on him to do the right thing, to do his best, and always get his work done. But his aunt stopped me in the hallway one day to ask me to watch this kiddos grades really closely-- especially as the winter months approached. Why, I wondered. He's the best kid! I have no reason to worry about him! Then she let me know that his mother died suddenly and unexpectedly a couple of winters ago during an elective surgical procedure. She said he gets kind of down this time of year, especially around Christmas. I told her I'd keep an eye on him and let her know if anything came up.

So we started our memoirs in class. I walked around during the class period to make sure everybody was making satisfactory progress, and everybody seemed to be doing great, so I took my seat behind my podium at the front of the class and graded some papers. Every once in a while I looked around to make sure everybody was still on track. And I noticed this kiddo. He was doing the thing where you dab the outside corner of your eye to keep the tears from coming all the way out. I thought, Well, maybe he's just got something in his eye. Then he did it on the other eye. Uh oh. I just sat and watched him for a couple of minutes. He was putting up a HUGE fight to keep those tears from coming out while he forced himself to keep writing. So I walked to the back of the room where he was sitting. I didn't say a word to him. I just stood next to his desk and put my hand on his shoulder and gave him a little squeeze. The dam broke. He started sobbing. I looked down at his tear-stained paper and the title said, "The Day I Lost My Mom."

Mrs. Cochran started crying too.

The boy sitting next to him, who had caught on to what was going on leaned over to him and said, "Man, I totally understand. I felt the same way when I lost my dad. I'm writing my story about it too." So I asked the two boys to go outside together and talk for a few minutes. While they were outside, everybody else in the class wanted to know what was going on because they heard him crying. So we had a little talk about how some people are writing about very personal things, so we need to be sensitive to that when we do our presentations. And that sometimes it's good to get things out on paper. Sometimes it can help us when we're feeling down about something.

I went outside to check on the boys, and there they stood, two nearly grown, huge 16 year old super-macho boys hugging each other. The boy I asked to go outside with him said, "You straight, bro?" He said, "Yeah." They both sniffed a little, wiped their eyes, and went back inside. It was a proud moment for me as a teacher. I was proud that my kids felt like they could tackle such heavy subjects in my class, and I was proud that I had kids in my class who wanted to help each other. At my school, we always hear so much about fighting, and crime, and kids who don't care. And this really special moment in 8th period really made me happy. I have some good kiddos. And I'm really looking forward to hearing all their stories next week.