44: Ask First

44: Ask First

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Ask First

All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.

~Galileo Galilei

After twenty years in advertising, which thrives on relationship building and persuasion, I went back to school, earned a master’s degree in education, and became a teacher — a profession that also thrives on relationship building and persuasion. I somehow ended up teaching high school English even though my original mission was to embrace the awkward weirdness of middle school. My first semester as an educator quickly turned into another semester as the kids taught me about high school and life, and what was important to them. It had been twenty-five years since I graduated from high school, so I had a lot to learn. I listened. I took notes. I asked a lot of questions.

My students endured more hardship than I had been familiar with at their ages. Many came from fatherless homes; some had parents in prison; most qualified for free lunches and their families survived on government assistance; and some of them were already parents themselves. Comprehending their circumstances proved impossible, but loving them came easily.

When my second semester began, my classroom welcomed a host of new students, including one young man who lit up the space every time he passed through the door. David stood tall at six feet, four inches, and from the back his broad shoulders and muscular build gave him the appearance of a grown man. His wide smile and sparkling eyes charmed every person in the room. He was smart, too. David knew the answers to seemingly everything. For weeks, he controlled the atmosphere of my class. He led group discussions, encouraged others to participate, and earned the highest grades.

I was so impressed by him and his abilities that I didn’t ask a lot of questions. I didn’t really take time to get to know him as I had with my first-semester crew.

A few weeks passed, and we entered the month of February. David strode quietly into class, sat firmly in his seat, and refused to remove his headphones. David’s engaging smile disappeared. He looked sullen and sad. I asked if he was okay, but he didn’t respond. I encouraged him to participate, but he angrily refused. I reminded him of the class rules, and he threw a tantrum as big as his size 14 Jordans. So I sent David to a buddy room. Three days in a row…

Finally, I called another student down to my room. He was a young man with whom I had developed a strong relationship. I had noticed him walking in the hallways with David on a regular basis.

“What in the world has happened to David?” I asked.

“Oh, ma’am, this week is his mom’s birthday, and she just died three months ago.”

I was shocked. I excused the student, and I cried. I had failed David during a very difficult time.

The next day, I let David keep his headphones on. As soon as the bell rang and the other students scattered, I stopped him at my desk.

“I’m sorry,” I said, placing my hand on his left shoulder. “I should have asked questions. I should have found out what was going on, and I shouldn’t have had to ask your friend to figure it out. What do you need from me? What can I do to help you through the next couple of weeks?”

David shrugged. I suggested that we come up with a plan that would allow him to keep up with his work, and he agreed. David also agreed to let me know when he was having a rough day so I could put our plan into motion.

“Are you sure there is nothing I can do for you?” I pleaded.

“I don’t know what I need,” he cried. “I just miss my mom.”

“Can I give you a hug?”

David leaned down and hugged me for a very long time. We both cried.

The next year, David was a senior. I moved to another building in the high school to teach freshmen, but David made his way to my classroom at least once a week to get his hug. That May, when David graduated, I stood at the end of the stage so I could be there to hug him after he received his diploma.

Sometimes teachers are the students. There is so much our kids have to share with us if we are willing to listen. I learned a valuable lesson about not coming to conclusions without first getting to know my students, even the ones who start halfway through the year.

~Michele L. Rausch

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