A Story With a Question

I did something today that I don’t often get to do.  I visited my former students.  After a year away travelling, I’m back in Boston for my husband’s graduation, so I arranged to visit the school where I taught last year.  A few teachers knew, but my arrival was a surprise for the students.  Before I walked through the front door, my former boss met me and gave me a big hug.  She smiled as she asked, “Are you ready to be mobbed?”

Fortunately, the students didn’t all see me at once.  If they had, I don’t think I would’ve remained upright.  As it was, they came at me so fast that once or twice I didn’t know who was hugging me.  Then most of them moved on to stand in the popcorn and cotton candy line near the main entrance (it was “Family Game Day” at school).  They were happy to see me, but even that wouldn’t distract them from food.  The older students handing out concessions simply yelled their greetings to me and offered me a snow cone “on the house.”  I declined.  

Just when I thought I got a break, I looked up to see a body hurdling down the hallway, yelling “MRS. ROBERSON!!” I barely had time to brace myself before she jumped on me.  While she clung to me, I looked up to see another young man sprinting towards us.  I almost didn’t register that he was one of my 6th graders last year, because he had clearly gone through several growth spurts since I saw him last and now stood eye level with me.  He tackled me with the same enthusiasm, turning our embrace into a giant group hug of excitement.

When they broke away, it still took a while for them to form coherent sentences, expressions of happy shock plastered on their faces.  The girl was near hyperventilation, while the boy simply seemed dazed.  “OK.  That made my day,” he said, when he could finally articulate his thoughts.  And then the questions came.  Why hadn’t I told them I was coming?  Wasn’t I supposed to be in Alaska?  Wasn’t I supposed to be in Florida?  (They seemed to forget about Illinois.)  Am I coming back for good?  Why not?

What got to me, though, is what I saw after the novelty of my arrival wore away.  The only way I can describe is that something was “off.”  They were excited to see me, but they weren’t excited to tell me about anything.  They were apathetic as they gave me the tour of the new buildings.  I asked a variety of questions about the past year, and I only got vague, one-word answers in response.  I asked about the new teachers, what books they’d read (they are both natural readers), and the new facilities.  Nothing.  They wouldn’t say what they liked or didn’t like, what was fun or what was horrible.  Who goes through a whole school year without forming any opinions about anything?  Maybe it was just the end-of-year-blahs, but I think it was deeper than that.

Later in the afternoon I sat down and talked with the boy.  “It just doesn’t feel like Parkside this year,” he told me quietly, when I finally drew some answers out him.  It hurt to see him so listless – this student whom I knew could be so vibrant and brilliant.  He seemed like a different kid entirely from the young man with the contagious laugh I knew last year.  He was still smart, still capable of great things, but he seemed somehow disillusioned about the world and subtly cynical.  The light had gone from his eyes, though I’d seen it when he was recovering from the shock of seeing me.

I didn’t spend the whole day with just him, of course.  I made my rounds at the school, visiting in the teacher’s lounge and hanging out with other students.  I chatted with my replacement, commiserating over the challenges of the job.  The math teacher caught me up on all the relationship gossip of the last year (you know, all that stuff that goes on that students think teachers don’t know.  We see.  We know.)  Overall, I really enjoyed my visit.

When it came time to leave, I made my rounds again and said my goodbyes.  I found the boy last, playing Rock Band in one of the classrooms (did I mention it was an informal school day?)  I waved goodbye to the other students while I waited until he finished his song, and then he stood up to give me a hug.  I was struck again by how much he’d grown.  He wasn’t just taller; he was noticeably older.  Still, in front of his classmates and other teachers, he hugged me tight and whispered “I’m so glad you came.”

I can’t get his face out of my head.  I know what adolescent depression looks like, and I’m worried he’s headed down that path.  If he’d connected with another teacher, he would have told me about it.  If he had anything at that school to excite him, he would have dragged me by the arm to show me.  His apathy wasn’t the typical facade of adolescence.  I think few people realize the damage that boredom, restlessness, and feelings of not being understood can cause in a brilliant young mind.

This is where the nature of my career makes things really hard.  If I were still there, still a teacher in his school building, I think I could help him.  I invest myself in my students every year, and every year I walk away from them.  It hasn’t been easy, but it’s always been OK.  How can I walk away from him when I don’t know if he’s going to be OK?  I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again, since I’m moving back to the Midwest very soon, but I’m always going to wonder about him and how he’s doing.

So here’s my question:  Is there anything I can do for him?

I’m especially talking to the teen readers now.  Imagine that you attend a tiny K-12 school so small that all your classes are mixed-grade and you have the same teachers year after year.  You’re not happy there, and there isn’t much option for change.  Think about those early adolescent years, 8th and 9th grades, and all the confusions that go with transitioning from childhood to the teen years.  Is there anything that an out-of-state teacher could do to ease the transition and reignite the spark?  Is there any way I can let him know that I care, without it being too weird?

I’m seriously asking.  Can I help him, even though I’m moving away?

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4 thoughts on “A Story With a Question

  1. That’s a tough situation. Being in a somewhat similar position to this student, I’m guessing he feels tired of being with the same teachers, a bit isolated form his peers, and restless being in the same school and community for so long. We’re pretty much on emotional roller coasters 24/7 and go through phases in which we question and second-guess almost everything. We don’t need constant reassurance and little pats on the back, but I would advise just to remind him to put things in perspective. I think all students are really susceptible to developing tunnel vision; we get so caught up in the social and academic aspects of school that we lose sight of the fact that it’s all just a phase in a bigger picture. I understand that you don’t want to get too involved and I’m not even sure if this would be of much help to him, but I know that if it were me I’d really appreciate a gesture as small as a short, encouraging email reminding me not to stress too much and that there is a bigger, more important future after high school.

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  2. I went to a small private school K-8, with small classes and the same teachers, so I kind of know what that’s like. Unfortunately I don’t have tons of advice, since I loved it there.
    As someone who got through high school, my best advice is to keep in touch. I don’t know what the policy is for teachers emailing former students, and if that’d be weird or not, but if not that then maybe just a well-thought letter. If he feels like he has some way to get in touch with you when/if he needs it, then that hope could really boost his spirits.
    That’s my best advice. Teen years are tough, both for the teens and the people who care about the teens.

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  3. I had similar situations when I left my school in Illinois. What I did was add my former students as friends on facebook (upon their request- I never went out of my way to find them but instead just let them know that they could search me out, if they wanted to), limiting how much they could see of my profile. Now I can occasionally post an encouraging comment on their wall to let them know that I still care. With a small school where I knew all of the kids pretty well, I was not really worried about liability (especially since they are limited to what they can see on my wall). I know some of my first classes are now graduating from high school, and they always seem to enjoy it when I go out of my way to comment. It is an easy way to keep in contact. I’ve also known some people who created a separate facebook account for student contact- a “Mrs. Roberson” account, for example. That was a way for their students to have some contact with them. I know we are taught over and over again to be EXTREMELY careful using social networking sites- but I think there are some good, careful ways that you can use them for the benefit of your former students (I would never advise adding current students as friends- for a number of reasons). BUT- I can see where it wouldn’t make sense or feel comfortable, depending on the situation.

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    • Yeah, with my high school students I usually say they can add me on facebook after they graduate. With this kid, though, I actually don’t think he has a facebook account! I know, rare these days, but it wasn’t very popular with his class. They used YouTube channels and things like that instead. I think I will send him an e-mail, though.

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