As the school year drew to a close, I once again found myself reflecting on the highs and lows of my year in the classroom, things I was surprised by, things to repeat or never do again, things to change up a little next time. I also reflected on students and how they affected me; those who made me laugh and those who made me want to cry, some who made classroom life brighter and others who really pushed me to my limits of patience and professionalism as I strove to find new ways to engage and connect with them.
The toughie, the reluctant worker who challenges authority at every opportunity and encourages others to join in – most classes have at least one of these. Often this is because they find school difficult socially, struggle academically or are unhappy at home and feel the need to hide their insecurities behind a wall of bravado. They may even become a bully, hurting others in an attempt to hide their own deep-seated hurts. They make comments like, “I don’t care” but when it comes down to it, they really do. Sound familiar?
I encountered one such child last year and let’s be honest, we had our fair share of struggles, interspersed with rare jokes and occasional snippets of shared conversation. He was the big man of the class, in personality if not size; a leader amongst many of his peers. He disliked me from the moment I stepped foot in the classroom, as I was replacing his beloved teacher he had already built a relationship with over previous terms. (A common problem faced by students and replacement teachers and one I’m all too familiar with.) An intelligent boy, he refused to engage with tasks and handed in work far below his academic ability. He excelled at sport but refused to put anything but minimal effort into anything else. He pretended not to care but was upset when his lacklustre efforts produced grades to match. He was often heard to loudly announce, “I can’t do Maths” in a preemptive move to avoid comments from classmates about results. He caused more than his fair share of heartache and frustration as I attempted to win him round, engage him in learning and help him contribute positively to the class. I pounced on positives, giving encouragement for the smallest improvement but to no effect. I wish I could say I broke through to him, that I fostered a love of learning and changed his attitude. Sadly, I can’t say that, as it didn’t happen. I’m no miracle worker and little changed throughout our time together.
Every now and then, we were allowed a glimpse of the real boy hidden beneath the bravado he kept tightly wrapped around himself as protection, his carefully crafted suit of armour. Tears sometimes streaked his face after visiting the office. A look of disappointment crossed his face for just a second when papers were returned and results revealed. But the most poignant reminder came on graduation day.
The entire year level of students were lined up, ready to procession into the hall. Parents, grandparents and family friends awaited the arrival of the Year 6 graduates. Nervous tension was running high – some chattered nervously, others stood silently biting their lips or wringing their hands. Some had broken out into a nervous sweat. A couple were visibly shaking, some reported feeling unwell or having butterflies in their tummies whilst others revelled in the moment, broad smiles unable to be wiped off. As I approached the end of our class line, one boy looked particularly concerned. Pulling at his hair and running his fingers through it repeatedly, he asked nervously, “Does my hair look OK?” I could have lied to make him feel better in the moment, but I couldn’t bear to let him go on stage looking like he did. “No, actually, it looks like you just got out of bed,” I replied, perhaps a little too honestly. A look of panic came across his already nervous face. “I was running late for my bus and I didn’t have time to do my hair,” he replied almost inaudibly, eyes downcast. My heart melted. I desperately wanted to help him. Here he was, all bravado stripped away, a little boy like any other, longing to look his best for his big moment, desperate for his parents to be proud of him. I offered a comb, which was gladly accepted and he quickly tidied the front of his hair. The back, however, remained unkempt and scruffy. “Would you like me to comb the back for you?” I asked quietly. The look of relief on his face was instant. “Could you? Yes please,” he replied, all defences down, bravado pushed aside.
As I hurriedly combed his hair, I was reminded of the vulnerability, insecurities and fears experienced by everyone. This tough kid, like all of us, just needed a little understanding and kindness in the moment; he needed to know that I really was on his side and wouldn’t let him take the stage with messy hair. Hair combed, he thanked me politely, stood a little taller, looked a little less nervous and we all marched in to take our seats for the graduation ceremony.
It wasn’t mentioned again. Of course he never thanked me for teaching him, didn’t hug me as other students did or even say goodbye on his last day. We simply went our separate ways. He probably won’t even remember me but I will long remember his vulnerability in that fleeting moment and be left wondering if I showed him enough kindness during my time with him.
How many people do we come across every day whom in revealing their vulnerability are calling out for a simple act of kindness? Something that says through actions, “I really am on your side and I want to help you. ”