Wednesday, August 10, 2005


The '98-'99 school year was my last year as a public school teacher. It didn't go well. I switched at the beginning of that year from a really wonderful, grounded, hard-working school in a really awful neighborhood that was a 90 minute drive (each way) from my home to a politically twisted school in an upper-middle-class neighborhood about 25 minutes from home. The kids weren't from truly affluent homes. This was Northern California and most of the families were probably a little house poor. But it was squeaky clean and homogenized and pasteurized and, it turned out, more than a little paranoid.

It wasn't a good year for me.

But it had its moments and one of them was a kid named Daniel. Daniel had Tourette's. I didn't know anything about Tourette's. I looked up some information on the internet (this might have been pre-google, LOL, I really don't know) but I didn't recognize my student in any of those descriptions. I know he was taking a (some?) medication so I guess that must have helped some, but I don't really know. I don't know which of those symptoms he was supposed to have and which he didn't. I didn't ask. Whatever it was that he was being treated for hadn't manifested itself in my classroom. What I saw was a sometimes shy, often witty kid with a really solid foundation. Some kids have a lot going for them, but their core being is shakey. Maybe it's how they came into the world and with love and a good home they outgrow it. Maybe they came into the world just fine but they got snubbed on the love and good home part. Whether he had it when he arrived, I don't know, but I do know that his mother loved him "like the rock of ages" as the song goes. She was a favored school volunteer.

I liked her, trusted her, and gave her pretty much free access to the room. She'd come and go as she pleased and even when the class was acting up and I was having a bad day, I never really gave her a second thought. There was another parent who was there a lot and I remember regretting giving her so much freedom. She openly disliked a few of the more challenging students telling me once that she didn't know how I could stand it -- these kids were just so horrid. I remember just staring at her, speechless. There were 34 kids in that class and six of them were on ADHD medications. I had a full-inclusion aide for one of my kids who had congenital brain damage. One very bright child had some pretty severe emotional issues. Another was dealing with one of the most bitter divorces I'd ever seen. None of the kids ever acted maliciously. They were just a poor mix, in a class that was too big, and nine. Nine year olds are wonderful people but their ability to control their own impulses is often over rated. They're younger, in some ways, than they look. It's an easy mistake to make.

But this mother I'm remembering did not make that mistake. She knew. Daniel wasn't her first. He was her third or fourth or fifth. I'm not sure. But he wasn't her first or second, I know that much. I would see them sometimes hanging out in the office. After school, usually. She'd be chatting with someone and he'd be there and he was inevitably touching her. He'd be in her lap, or hanging over her shoulder, or playing with her hair. There was nothing weird about it. It was just that there wasn't any of the distance that the other nine-year-olds in my class were already starting to show. Oh, they'd be affectionate with their parents, but not where someone else could see.

Max was one that year and I remember walking into the office once and she was talking and he was perched on her knee and just listening to the conversation. He was relaxed and leaning against her and completely unself-conscious. I thought, "Please, please let me be deserving of that."

So you know, today, as I read through the introduction of Max's math lesson, sitting next to him at a table in the public library, he leaned against me, tucking himself into my arm and making silly jokes about the lesson and I had the sense to take no credit and just be grateful. Thank you, God. Thank you for Pennsylvania and Chris and the public library and this forgiving kid. Thank you for seventh chances and one more day that he'll be affectionate with me in public.

And thank you Daniel and his mom, for giving me something worth working towards. I hope, 8 years later, that you had a wonderful high school graduation last spring and that you are both looking forward, in your own way, to a terrific freshman year. I'm sure, wherever you are Daniel, that you'll do great with that solid core you have. And I'm sure, wherever you are Daniel's mom, that you're proud of him.

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