Maybe I should have been offended by the skeptical look on his face.
“Mrs. Roberson, they put you in here?”
I looked up from the squirming preschoolers that surrounded me and raised an eyebrow at the sixteen-year-old student filling the doorway. All I said was, “I know, right?”
“You want me to come in and help?”
I gratefully nodded, and I marveled at his ease as he swept in the room and took control, the way I do with a high school class.
You see, I know my strengths, but I also know my limitations, and I’ll freely admit those limitations to my high school students. Put me in a room full of hormone-crazed, slightly rebellious teenagers and tell me to teach them something, and I’ll rock that job. I’ll have a blast doing it, too. But ask me to teach anyone younger than 6th grade, and I start to get nervous. Any younger than 3rd grade, and I’m completely out of my element. Joshua* knew this, so his skepticism was warranted when he saw I’d been assigned to watch the preschool class for an hour while the administration met with the Early Ed. department. And he was way better at managing those kiddos than I was, so I really appreciated his help.
I’ve encountered hundreds of young men and women over the course of my nomadic career, so unfortunately, the faces of many of my students have faded from my memory over time – even some of the kids from the school in Boston I taught at only a year ago. But Joshua stands out. He played a unique role in the school environment, and he knew it.
Up until 2010, that small private school had just been a preschool through 8th grade school. Then the administration decided they wanted to expand to include high school. Their first 9th grade class had four students – three girls and Joshua. I was hired to the school when those four were in 10th grade, the oldest kids in the school with no upperclassmen to emulate. A few freshmen and 8th graders followed their lead as they blazed the trail into the high school world, however, and Joshua felt the weight of being the only male upperclassman for those kids.
I think he liked it, though. And I don’t mean just being the one sophomore boy surrounded by pretty girls – though he was a good-looking teenage guy and I’m sure he liked that part, too. But he wanted to be a leader in the world. He wanted to have people look up to him and trust him with responsibility. So he tried hard to rise to the occasion of being the school’s oldest boy, of being someone the younger kids could look up to as a good role model. Even when another young man who was actually a little older than him enrolled later in the year, it was Joshua’s lead that most of the other students continued to follow.
He was also a sixteen-year-old kid without any seniors to show him the way, so he did make mistakes. He could be full of himself at times, act inappropriately in class at times, and sometimes grudged the rules he was asked to follow. I think he annoyed the girls sometimes, too. But at the heart of it all, he wanted leadership and respect, and he tried his best to earn it.
In one incident in particular, he showed me just how potent that drive and desire was to him. I’m rarely overtly angry with my students, but that day, I lost it. A school-wide event in the gym had caused several of my students to be pulled out of class throughout the day. This happened a lot at that school, and frankly, it got on my nerves. It became a particular pet peeve of mine that students wouldn’t always check in with me before they skipped my class to join whatever activity was happening. My students knew this, too. So that day, when absolutely no one showed up to my class and no one checked in to tell me they’d be gone, my blood began to boil. As I went searching for my students, I passed Joshua in the hall and quickly asked him to help me wrangle up the class. Then I headed to the gym, where I found many of my younger students sitting against the wall talking. They weren’t even participating in the activity; they were just hanging out! I was livid. I ordered them up to my classroom while I went searching for more students. I found Joshua again, still just standing around in the hallway, clearly not doing what I’d asked. I shot him a death glare and sent him to my classroom in no uncertain terms. When I finally had the class all gathered in my room, I lit into them.
“You know how I feel about you not showing up to my class! I don’t care what the other teachers say on these “event” days; you know you need to check in with me no matter what. I can’t teach you if you aren’t here, and quite frankly, we can’t afford to miss any class time at all!”
Joshua spoke up from where he was standing in the back of the room. “We thought we were supposed to be in the gym all day.”
I glanced at him with a teacher-look that I knew shot daggers. “I specifically asked you to help me get everyone into class, so don’t give me that,” I retorted. I saw the shocked hurt in his eyes, but I continued my tirade to the whole class for a few more minutes, then told them to get out their books.
Joshua didn’t move, his stiff posture and the hard line in his jaw betraying his anger. As I crossed the room to him, I wished I’d worn heels that day so that he wouldn’t be looking down on me quite so much during the confrontation I was sure to come. However, he kept his voice level and evenly met my gaze as he said, “Mrs. Roberson, I didn’t hear you ask me to help you. You know that if I’d heard you ask me that, I would have done it.”
I took a second to process his words, and then nodded. He was right. I knew him well enough to know that if he’d heard me give him responsibility and a chance to be a leader among his classmates, he would have taken it and done what I’d ask. My accusation of blatant disobedience hurt his pride. He wasn’t a perfect kid, but he wanted respect from his elders. He would’ve wanted to rise to the opportunity I’d given him. He still should have checked in with me before class either way, but I was willing to concede that he probably hadn’t heard my request in the hallway. I also appreciated how he kept his anger under control as he spoke to me, addressing the issue without making things worse with inappropriate words or a disrespectful tone.
So when he came to the preschool classroom doorway that day near the end of the year and offered his help with the little kids, I gladly accepted. I knew he could probably excel where I was floundering, and I trusted that he wouldn’t take advantage of my need for help – and I definitely needed help! I’m willing to admit that a sixteen-year-old boy may actually be better at watching a class full of preschoolers than I am – and in this case, he was.
I hope he does well in the future. I remember his career aspirations lacked some maturity just yet (“I wanna be a doctor, because they make bank!” he’d declare), but I think he will go far despite that. I think with experience he’ll learn what kind of responsibility he’ll want to shoulder as he takes on the world in the years to come. I’m just glad for the opportunity to work with him and play a small role in his educational development.
*Name has been changed.