Jimmy, a 3rd grader who joined us mid-year, didn’t know how to brush his teeth. After giving him his toothbrush and a buddy who could teach him, my next conversation was interrupted by shrieks from the bathroom, “Ms. DeWilde, the sink is full of blood! Jimmy is spitting up blood!” And he was, sort of. His smile was edged by red-rimmed gums that were still leaking blood down his incisors. After asking him to be gentle with that toothbrush for a few days, he mentioned he had a bad toothache, and opened wide. I normally don’t look. I tell all of my students that I don’t do mouths or body fluids. They quickly learn to be self-sufficient. But I looked, and it changed who I was.
Jimmy’s teeth were uniformly brown and rotted, but the worst molar was essentially hollow, a hole with a sharp-edged, yellow-brown rim around it. I couldn’t imagine how he endured that kind of pain. He had been inattentive and disruptive in my class for the entire week he had been in our school, and I suddenly understood why. I wouldn’t sit still if I had a mouth like that. I’d be lying on the floor moaning in agony.
I dropped my walls. I had been clothing and feeding my students for a while, but I had always resisted the fact that I had to do it. My mother had been much more practical about it, “They can’t learn if they’re hungry. We have to give them something.” She invented Snack Stop mid-morning so we could get through our math lessons without children doubling over from hunger. Sometimes we get snacks from donors, most of the time Mom pays for them, but it’s completely worth the cost. Children learn.
I also had been bringing in my daughters’ hand-me-downs and getting clothes, and much more, from our wonderful classroom sponsor, Ms. Susan. When Nadia came to school wearing shorts on a freezing, snowy day, giving her a pair of jeans mattered. So did Roger and Lorelei’s winter coats because the heat in their rental house went out every cold snap. They’d come to school feeling like an ice cube on the outside, but it was good to know they were warm somewhere inside that stuffed sausage of a coat. Rock always needed socks because his mom didn’t do laundry often and the water was eventually turned off at his house anyway.
I knew all of this and much more, but I still resisted. My credentials said teacher on them, not social worker. Until I saw that tooth. I gave up. Kids need what they need from whoever can give it, and I knew the nurse would help arrange a free dentist for Jimmy. (The dentist gets my massive appreciation. Jimmy said it took four people to hold him down.) Walking away from poverty is like walking away from bullying. Even though I feel powerless against the scale of it, walking away says I don’t care. And I do. These children matter. Whether they’re in my classroom for two weeks or two years, they matter. I give up. The barriers are down, and this is my fight. Jimmy, who blew apart our lessons on a regular basis, changed me.
There will be many students who change how you think. Sandra, my bellwether student, taught me that it was okay to slow down sometimes. Preston taught me why it’s so important to make it right. Rock taught me to let things fall of their own weight. Sonny taught me that even the angriest student can learn to apologize well. Trey taught me that when parents lie, you can’t expect the child to be honorable. Kate and her friends pushed Twilight past my insistent, “No vampires,” connecting me with a whole new world. And so much more.
There will be other students who rip at your heart and change you from the inside. Let them. You will grow in ways you didn’t expect. After Rose was removed from her family, my husband and I took foster parenting classes. I was ready to take her in. Fortunately, she found a good foster home. And then there was Trina.
In our International Baccalaureate program, the 5th grade year is the culminating year when the students do a final project that must be large in scope, demonstrate everything they have learned at our school, and be presented to the community. We spend the entire year working up to it in all subjects. Trina started that year shoving kids who annoyed her. Of course, kids started aggravating her on purpose. While we worked on that, she, and all of her siblings, were removed from their home and separated into various homes and facilities. All of her clothes, and grooming items, not to mention school supplies and homework, as well as the only picture of her dad, were gone.
Thanks to Ms. Susan and the school counselor, we got some clothes together. We kept working on her aggressiveness, her tears, and her academics. She got a foster care placement, then it fell through, then another, then it fell through, etc. Over the months, she had to get new clothes and personal care items a few times because everything she owned kept getting left at her previous placement. Sometimes we got supplies through the school, sometimes through donors, sometimes through whoever was caring for her. She did a good job of keeping up academically, and we talked through a lot of tears about how unfair all of this was, especially as news about the mother she could barely visit whipsawed her emotions around. I kept telling her I was sorry that she had no control over her life and kept reminding her that she did have control over her reaction to it.
As the end of the year approached, the students worked like crazy to finish their research, make it through my “presentation boot camp” and complete their action projects to help tornado victims. Tri-fold boards needed a lot of work, photo credits had to be located, collection boxes had to be checked, and many practice presentations were given to the nearest door, wall, or empty desk. Finally, the big day arrived, we set up in the library, combed our hair, and smiled, ready for the community to walk in.
That’s when my principal called me aside. Trina’s social worker was here. She was being removed from school and taken to a placement in another city. Now. No, the social worker wouldn’t wait. She had a schedule to keep. No, she wouldn’t let Trina give her presentation at least once. It had to be now. I felt crushed, but I was the teacher on our biggest day of the year and I had to lead my students through this. There were already parents in the room. This mattered. Remember to breathe. I circled up the class, told them Trina was leaving and that they had only a few minutes to say goodbye. The kids went into shock and started crying. So did I. I left them with other teachers, ran for the classroom and, with the support of our deeply kind reading teacher, emptied Trina’s desk into a bag.
When I returned, we were all sobbing. This had to stop. We circled up again. The computer teacher threw me a joke, “If you look like this when the parents come in, they’re going to think you all got F’s.” Bless him. It was just what I needed. I repeated the joke and got everyone to laugh and relax a little. We dried our eyes. Trina’s partner determined that he could carry their entire presentation on his own. We opened the circle and began.
For that entire year with Trina, I felt like I was the only stable adult in her life. Even her social worker changed. Besides emotional and academic support, I ended up giving her advice on wearing less makeup, better fitting clothes, and bathing. I’ve never been that involved with a child, but who else was going to do it? On that final day, even my goodbye was rushed. But Trina changed me. In my heart, I can stand strong and be stable for a child. I can also stand steady and bring a class through a crisis. Teaching is so much more than a credential.