“Did Jesus Poop? Questions Fifth Graders Ask.” This is going to be the title of one of my first books.
It will be filled with questions ranging from the scholarly and profound, to the insane and silly.
“Do venus fly traps excrete?”
“Can plants have twins?”
“If God created everything, did God create the devil?”
And my favorite from this year, asked on multiple occasions, believe it or not, “And, Sister Sarah, what does that look like in the transgender population?” How, may I ask, do they manage to fit these questions into the fifth grade curriculum?
I teach very obviously, curious, fifth grade girls at an all girls middle school in the city of St. Louis. Our mission is to break the cycle of poverty by providing a holistic education for under-resourced urban adolescents. More simply put, our goal is to offer students whose families fall below the poverty line a chance at a college education starting with a solid middle school base. Our graduate support program follows them with educational, financial, and other supports through high school and into college. Our girls are at school from 7:30 in the morning until 5:30 in the evening. They get breakfast, lunch, and snack, mandatory study hall staffed with teachers and volunteers, and enrichment programs ranging from culinary arts and hip hop or praise dance, to media club and basketball. The girls put in a very long day, as does the staff.
When I first interviewed for the job, and the interview committee was describing the work load, I thought, “Okay, no problem.” I had taught everything from kindergarten through high school, English as a second language, special education, I’ve got this. No college class could have prepared me for that first year.
I had kids rolling around on the floor in the back of my room, students who wouldn’t come in from the hall. My birthday in mid-September started with a girl getting punched in the stomach in the middle of the classroom. It wasn’t as if they were unattended—I was standing right there.
Every day for the first three months of that year, I felt like I had done nothing but fight all day. My body literally ached. By mid-October I was sure I was either going to quit or get fired before Christmas. I just wasn’t sure which was going to happen first.
That same year I had a student named Melissa. My heart will always have a little place that belongs to Melissa. Well, Melissa was one of those students who wouldn’t even come into the classroom to start the day. She was a bully of bullies and never doing what she was supposed to. Because she was so defiant, she was one of those kids that maybe a little reverse psychology would have worked on, except that she was so smart. She was a born leader, but she was never leading anyone in a very positive direction.
Teachers use this great thing called proximity control as a classroom management tool. It basically means, when a student is off task, when I, as the authority figure in the room, walk close, my proximity should be enough to stop the behavior. I’m sure it works in some buildings, but my girls are more apt to continue yelling at each other right around me. I was ALWAYS walking near Melissa. When I would get near Melissa, though, she would physically flinch and pull away. I’m very confident that she thought she was going to get hit. I imagine that corporal punishment was the norm at home.
One day, in September, we were in the middle of our week of standardized testing, filling in all of those little bubbles, and here’s Melissa with her head down, not doing anything. Well, she had been removed to the office to test most of the other sessions already, so I was ready to remove her again. But, I went over and crouched by her desk, “Melissa, I notice you have your head down. Are you feeling okay?”
“No, I’m not,” she said. “I have a terrible headache.”
Now my head is going in a million directions because I have this thought, but I’m not sure how it’s going to go. “Did you know,” I ask, “that there are these spots on your hand that you can rub, and it will help your headache go away? I rub my hands when I get a headache and it really helps. Would it be okay if I try it on your hands?”
She slouched back in her desk and put her hands out. I sat and rubbed her hands for a minute or two, after which she said she felt better and started working on her test. From that moment of that day, she never once pulled away from me again. I don’t think she had ever been touched in a way that was intended to heal. Not only did she not pull away, she totally had my back. I remember a couple of months later we were taking a class field trip. “Sister Sarah,” she asked, “Are you sure that jacket is going to be warm enough?”
Unfortunately, Melissa was asked to leave our school the next year. But, I still keep tabs on her. I don’t know if that moment, that year, meant anything to her, but I know it totally changed me.
I know that how I greet each student as they come into my room in the morning, makes all the difference in the world. Even if a student is totally out of uniform—wearing the same neon knee socks I’ve asked to her to leave at home for the past three days—without homework, and cussing as she comes down the hall—the first thing that she needs from me is a smile, a high five or a hug, and a, “Good morning. How are you today? How was breakfast?” We can deal with the other things later.
I know that if a student has her head down, it might be defiance. Or, it could be that she is tired since her family was evicted from their home last night and they were out until 2:00 a.m. trying to find somewhere to stay. Or maybe the student is worried about her alcoholic mom who is home alone all day without anyone there to make sure she is safe.
I teach tough kids with tough lives. I can’t imagine growing up the way these girls do. And I can’t usually change what they are going to go home to on any given night. But, I can make sure that they have the best chance at providing something different for themselves when they have a chance. I can make sure that for the ten hours a day that they are with us, they have a safe place to be a kid, to play, to laugh, to take risks that are safe, to ask questions, to know compassion, to be told that they are smart, and capable, and most of all, that they are loved.
Every Friday, before the girls go home, I give them a blessing. When they are all packed up and ready to go, I put my hands on each girl’s shoulders. I thank God for some gift she has, ask for some blessing that she might need. I pray that the angels keep her and her family safe over the weekend. And I end by telling her that I love her and that I already can’t wait to see her on Monday.
My second year there, first Friday of school, I had just blessed all of the fifth graders and sent them home when in came some of the sixth graders. “Sister Sarah, we’re here for our blessings.” At some point in the year, inevitably some of the students start giving me blessings, too. Trisha every week would put her hands on my shoulders and say, “Sister Sarah, you’re awesome and amazing, awesome and amazing, awesome and amazing, awesome and amazing.” She’ll be an eighth grader this year, and we still call each other awesome and amazing when we pass in the hallway.
I’ve learned that I am both the sower and the seed. I’ve learned as the sower that just as every seed has specific planting instructions, so does every child. I can’t scatter the seeds and hope for the best. I have to study each little seed, and what it needs to grow to its potential. To think about soil depth and sunlight, water and temperature. I have to teach math to Ana this way and to Abby this way. I have to call Alyssa’s mom every time she forgets her homework, but only call Crissie’s mom when it’s really necessary to do so. Sometimes the plants grow on the first try. Sometimes I have to replant. And replant. And replant. Always I have to believe that they will grow.
As often as I am the sower, I am also the seed. Children don’t know what they’re doing when they’re planting seeds. The fifth graders and I are in charge of our gardens at school—we replant A LOT. When I give them bits of myself to plant, I end up in places I never would have planted myself, in situations where I’ve been pecked at and stepped on and choked.
But, I end up in some pretty cool places, too. Sometimes I end up in good soil, growing right next to a student who is in exactly the right place, reaching for the sun, and shining brilliantly. Remembering that one plant is enough to get me up in the morning, excited to stand at my classroom door, and to greet each child with a handshake or a hug and a, “Good morning. How was breakfast?”