Two-sday Surprises.

Sometimes, a small surprise can mean a whole lot more than its face value might suggest.

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This morning didn’t seem any different than most when I left the house to head to work, but it proved to hold two lovely surprises.

The first surprise came in the form of a shop assistant who remembered me as her teacher from a number of years ago, and happily recalled the things she had studied and learned with me. An adult now, and with a different hair colour, I had not recognised her, but she knew me straight away.

It was nice to hear that she thought the books we read and the lessons we drew from them were valuable, and that history classes were interesting. It was wonderful to see that she had grown up into a confident, friendly and polite young woman with a lovely personality.

Of all the fond memories she recalled, though, one in particular had a profound effect on me: “You were the one teacher I ever had who showed me that it was okay to just be me, because that’s who I was meant to be. It’s something I have never forgotten.”

Wow! What a privilege to hear a former student say those words. I have struggled for many years with self acceptance, and as a teen I knew full well the agony of not fitting in with a particular crowd. Even then, I had the strength of will to resist peer pressure and not buy into many of the pitfalls that offered themselves to me at bargain prices and opportune moments. But that didn’t mean I was free of the wish to be someone or somewhere else – a desire that has recurred several times since.

Yet, somehow along the way, I managed to communicate something valuable about self acceptance to at least one teen in a similar situation.

I wonder if that knowledge would appease or satisfy those who think I push too many boundaries. Being part of a fairly conservative school, church and family, I take both pleasure and pride in not exactly looking conservative. I don’t intentionally break the rules, but I don’t mind testing their limits. My opinions often differ, and my willingness to assert them can make others uncomfortable. I don’t see that as a problem, though. There is merit in challenging people to see different perspectives and to accept differences. I’d like to think that people might become so used to my differences that I will need to think of something new to do to keep them on their toes.

My second surprise was a note on my desk from ex-students who had a reunion on Saturday night. I attended the reunion: it was a lovely evening of catching up and reminiscing. I didn’t realise, though, that they had left me a love letter on their tour of the school. How gorgeous that they still know how to make their English teacher happy and proud.

What I learned In Class This Morning.

They say life is a continual learning experience.

This morning, I walked into my Y12 classroom, where the heater had been on long enough to make the room too warm for me. I pulled my scarf off, not roughly, but vigorously enough for the clasp on my necklace came undone. I looked down just in time to see my pendant disappearing into my cleavage. 

Awkward. 

Instead of just leaving it there and retrieving it later, I started laughing.
Uncontrollably.
Of course I did. Why not draw more attention to myself, after all?

My students watched on, having no idea what had caused my outburst. Then one of the saw the chain on the desk and caught on. 

“Weren’t you just wearing that, Miss?”

“Yes. Yes, I was.”

“So… Where’s the thing that’s usually on the chain?”

“Well…” I said, “A funny thing happened when I took off my scarf. This chain came undone, and…” 

The look of familiarity with my predicament dawned on the face of every girl in the room. The boys, however, had become intently studious and we’re doing all they could do disengage from the conversation. The young man who started the conversation was clearly regretting that he had asked that first question. 

So I stood up, turned my back to the class, and jiggled a little. My pendant fell to the floor, I picked it up, replaced it on the chain, and put my necklace on again. I turned around again and proceeded with the lesson while we all pretended nothing had happened.

My favourite.

In class just now:

Student: “Can we please put some music on?”

Me: “No.”

Student: “Even if you choose it?”

Me: “No.”

Student: “But I want to know what music you like.”

Me: “I like lots of different types of music.”

Student: “What’s your favourite song right now?”

Me: “The sweet sound of people working on their history assignments.”

Student: “Oooh, I’m going to look that up!”

Me: Sigh. 

Alternate ed.

While in Detroit staying with my cousins, I spent a day visiting the school where my cousin David teaches.  It’s an alternate ed school on the same campus as a regular high school in the suburb of Birmingham. Classes are open age and not organised by grade level. 

I’ve had some interaction with one of the Hunanities teachers here before, as we have set up some interaction and communication between our history classes. It was great for our students to share their experiences and perspectives, and to find out their similarities and differences in the ways they view and understand world events and the ways in which they enjoy recreation, sports and entertainment. It was wonderful to meet with Mallory and continue our collaboration in person. 

I took the opportunity to share with several classes about the similarities and differences between the USA and Australia. Geography, politics, government, food, popular culture, flora and fauna, and history have all been topics of conversation. The students have been really interested and keen to discuss things, so I’ve really had a lot of fun. Talking with teens comes naturally to me, so I have been very blessed to have these opportunities. 

I also had the chance to watch my cousin teach geometry to a student who hates math. In his words, “Every moment of this is agony for her.” By the end of this one-on-one instruction time, she is mentally exhausted but she has achieved two learning goals and shown that she is making progress. She takes a nap for the remainder of the session: this is both her reward and essential recovery time after a lesson in which she has fought to achieve mastery of skills and knowledge that many students might take for granted as “basic”. 

I can understand where she is coming from. I hated math too: I found it very difficult, and my teacher was neither patient nor understanding of my weaknesses. I have to say that if my math teacher had been as gentle and encouraging as my cousin is with his students, I might have leaned more. There really is a art to teaching “math as a foreign language”, as David so neatly puts it. Other students in the room are more self-driven and work quietly in the relaxed learning environment where there’s blues music playing and the communication is casual and comfortable, even though the expectations and academic standards are maintained.  

I am so impressed. The students here are getting a chance to succeed and graduate where the regular classroom did not work for them. The staff are very proactive and constructive in their communication. In that, they are very much like the teachers with whom I work and, I’m sure, most teachers the world over.  It’s not really a unique thing that we do, but each of us has incredible opportunities to impact every student’s day, every student’s willingness to learn, and the outcomes of that in every student’s life. Here, where the kids face other issues in addition to those generally faced by teens in regular schools, there’s some powerful work being done to engage and mentor young people who are at very real risk of otherwise “falling through the cracks” or dropping out altogether. 

As David and I walked out at the end of the day, I was struck by the difference in appearance between his school and the one upstairs, which clearly gets more funding and attention than the other. It may look nicer up there, but I have developed a very soft spot for the students and the staff at Lincoln St Alternate Ed. What happens there is very, very special indeed.