Friday, June 10, 2011

How You Spell Hope?

I told this story to our staff at school, and someone asked me to share it again, so here goes: I was starting a new teaching year at Valrico Elementary a few years back. It was a brand new school and we were all excited about our brand new classrooms, brand new desks, brand new books, etc. I was going to be teaching 4th grade, which I love to do, and had prepared all the student desks with their names, etc. I had been "Harry Wonged" that summer, so had also written a letter to each of my students, welcoming them to a new school year. I had all 28 desks ready, and the morning got rolling. I got student 29, and ever-prepared, made him a name plate and got his desk ready. I got student 30, and ever-prepared, made her a name plate and got her desk ready. I got student 31, and less-prepared, made her a makeshift name plate and got her desk ready. I got student 32, and lesser-prepared, scribbled her name on a notecard and asked her to sit down. I got student 33, stared at my principal when she asked me to take him, and got a desk from the hallway to make room for him. Finally #34 came to the door, with nothing but a piece of masking tape reading "Derek" taped to his shirt, and with no more desks, I cleared off a place at a table next to my desk and asked him to sit tight until we could find a desk for him. I asked him his last name, and first he said Smith, then it was Jones, and then it was Smith, and finally he decided on Jones. I could tell he belonged in a special ed. class, and I knew it would just be a matter of time before he would be placed in the most appropriate class, so we all got down to work. Well, Derek was a handful. He had that kind of acrid, sweet smell you sniff sometimes when you walk by a dumpster. His clothes were filthy. He could not do the most basic tasks we were doing, and he had trouble staying in his seat. I had my hands full. By the end of the day, the counselor came by to tell me they couldn't figure out where he'd gone to school the previous year, and we were sending registration papers home with him on the same bus. I had a pretty good feeling we would not see him the next day, as there was no program for him at our school. Wiped out, I rearranged desks for Day 2 and went home to prepare for the next new day. Tuesday morning, in walks Derek. Same clothes. Same smell. Same piece of masking tape on his shirt. I asked him for his registration papers and he said he gave them to his mom. I asked him for more information, and that's all he could provide. I let the counselor know that Derek was back, and we got busy with our day. Again, he was into everything, hard to manage, very hungry, unable to do the work, and did I mention he was into everything? The other students whispered about him, and I gave them each a stern look, trying to get everyone to understand that Derek would not be with us for long. I had to buy a school lunch that day because he'd eaten my sack lunch mid-morning. By the end of the day, the counselor came by with more paperwork, a school letter in school stationary, and a big safety pin. She pinned the paperwork to Derek and told him he had to bring it back the next day. Whew, I was whooped. Who was Derek, and why would no one claim him? How could a parent just put him on a bus with no more than a first name? How could they leave a child so vulnerable? The counselor talked to the bus driver, and asked for her help, but she said all the kids just got off the bus in inner city Tampa and then scattered, there weren't any parents down there meeting the bus at the bus stop like they did in our school neighborhood. I felt sure we would not see Derek again. Wednesday morning. Good morning Derek. No paperwork. No envelope. Same clothes. Strong smell. Dirty face and hands. Hungry. He wolfed down the pbj I brought for him, then the banana, then the juice box. I showed him a pack of cheese crackers he could eat later in the morning. My 4th graders were precious but running out of patience. Derek got too close, went through their stuff, wouldn't leave them alone, and tried to get attention in every way he could imagine. By mid-afternoon, I told the counselor we had to have help with this situation, even if it meant calling CPS. Derek was obviously at risk. She agreed. I wanted our students to write a sample essay for me, so I could get an idea of how much work we'd need to do to pass the FCAT (Florida's version of the TAKS) so after reading our novel, The Best School Year Ever, I asked them to write for me: Describe what the best school year ever would be like for you. Derek got his paper and pencil and went right to work, even though he'd not been able to do any written work all week. He asked for help with spelling. Teacher, how you spell school? I spelled for him. Teacher, teacher, how you spell principal? I spelled for him. It was easier to spell for him than it was to tell him no. I was just trying to get through the day. Teacher, how you spell teacher? I spelled for him again. Then he asked for help with spelling the hardest word: Teacher, how you spell hope? It stopped me in my tracks. For a kid like Derek, how do you spell hope? I was bereft. I touched his shoulder and gave him the letters he wanted, but could not give him the help he so desperately needed. The counselor arrived at dismissal time and told me she'd be riding the bus home with him that day. As they left, I gave Derek a hug and told him I loved him. He hugged me back. When the counselor got to his bus stop, Derek walked with her to his home, the locked door of a homeless shelter where he met his mother each evening. They waited in the line until his mom arrived. And of course, like all great counselors do, ours made sure Derek got the help he needed. But Derek changed me as a teacher, and I'm grateful for that little boy. Derek taught me a lot in the three days I was blessed to be his teacher. I hope he's doing okay, wherever he is.

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