Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Perpetual Treasure Hunt

How many stories are there in an English classroom? More than those in the textbooks. An airplane flight last week reminded me.

The stewardess seated the girl between me and the window—a small tearstained face, tissue wadded in her fist—and whispered, “She’s leaving her dad and going back to her mom.”

I was torn between not wanting to smother the poor child in unwanted adult attention that might unleash a new torrent of tears, and not wanting to come across as indifferent. We exchanged a few desultory pleasantries…name…age…destination…number of transfers. Her manner was adult-like, staring politely off into space for a few seconds after each exchange to see whether the conversation was over before returning to her video game.

“I don’t like to read. English is my worst class.” A conversation stopper for sure, I thought, when that was her response to my question about how she liked the book which she pulled out of her bag, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, opening it to a page near the end.

But after a pause she continued. “I did like one book.” It was something about the trials of being a 4th grade girl. So I asked whether she maybe liked realistic stories more than fantasy. She thought maybe that was so, but she liked writing fantasy. She writes fantasy stories on her own, and wants to be a writer and illustrator when she grows up. Well, then she needs to read! The conversation meandered through genres and authors—she’d tried another book by the author of the book she’d liked, but she hadn’t liked it so much. But there were others she’d liked—Hatchet, but not another by Brian Paulsen. Loved The Fault in Our Stars.

Had I ever written anything, she asked. A blog and some poetry. What’s a blog, she asked. Then, “I hate poetry. Whenever I try to write it, it comes out like, ‘cat, sat, hat.’” At which point I had to confess to her that I was an English teacher (eyed flew open wide), and when my students write poetry, they are not allowed to use rhyme. Utter disbelief: “Then how is it poetry?” 

Racking my brain for a line of gorgeous unrhymed poetry that a 5th grader would understand, I came up with “Even at nighttime / Mama is a sunrise / That promises tomorrow and tomorrow.” “What does that mean?” (I’m in English teacher heaven.)

When the conversation on poetry ended, she had another question. “Do you give grades? How do you decide what grades to give? Why do you give grades when it just stresses kids out, makes us work too hard, and makes us feel bad when we don’t do well?” 

Does every 10-year-old engage in give-and-take discussions like this with adults? Though other branches of the conversation assured me she was very normal: “My mom says I should marry someone who is nice and good-looking, but I think good-looking is the most important.” “Nice lasts longer than good looks,” I was compelled to remind her. She looked astonished, “Well, I wouldn’t want to marry someone who was ugly!”

Then we came to families. Among other things, she’s facing a decision about which parent to live with next year. Her biggest concern: She has a toddler half-sibling with each parent; she knows that the one she doesn’t live with will forget her.

The math came out as we were beginning our descent, a thick packet of worksheets she was supposed to have finished over the 2 weeks she was gone. There was a section in the middle she was having trouble with and asked for help on. We didn’t get too far.

But as my husband and I gathered our carry-ons and shuffled off the plane in the long line of passengers, leaving her behind for the flight attendant to fetch, I was reminded again of how wonderfully complex each child that walks into a classroom is: 
  1. A professed dislike of school or subject can hide some deep thinking and active curiosity.
  2. Instances of maturity or immaturity are not the end of the story. We’re all a mix, all in process, all still growing.
  3. Students have lives outside of school, too, and some are dealing with issues more complex than I have ever had to face.
I wish I could take a transcontinental flight with every student who comes into my classroom, to have three hours to figure out what each one is really interested in, gifted at, passionate about, and distracted by. I can’t. But I can hold in the forefront of my mind the awareness that each has unique potential and struggles, and I can be on a perpetual treasure hunt.

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