52: First Impressions

52: First Impressions

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

First Impressions

Poetry is a language in which man explores his own amazement.

~Christopher Fry

I stood in the middle of a classroom full of third graders. “Okay, everyone, take out your writing journals,” I said. It was the third week of school during my first year of teaching, and I was pleased that my students were already getting the hang of our classroom procedures. They had just finished putting away their books and were waiting quietly for instructions, with their hands folded on their desks. Things were going pretty well. I had been holding morning meetings with my students and making sure that they all got to know each other through community-building activities.

I had harmony among my students, and I was proud that I had accomplished that. And I felt lucky because I had been assigned such a wonderful group of kids. But on that day, after my students had started enthusiastically writing in their notebooks, a short boy with chubby cheeks, curly brown hair, and an unkempt appearance walked into my classroom looking quite confused.

“Which classroom are you supposed to be in?” I asked.

“This one.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Carlos,” he responded.

I looked at my roster. “You’re not on my list,” I said. He shrugged his shoulders. “Who brought you up here?” He shrugged. “How did you get here?” He looked past me and shrugged again. I looked in the hall in case someone was waiting for him, but there was no one there.

No one seemed to know where he had come from, but he was mine now.

That evening, I went home exhausted, wondering if things would ever be the same. As the days went by, things only seemed to get worse. Carlos was uncooperative, never did his homework, and came to school unprepared. It usually took twenty minutes just to get him to write his name on a piece of paper, and there always seemed to be a mess under his desk — scattered crayons, pencil shavings, and crumpled paper.

After one week with Carlos in my classroom, I was completely drained. I cried in my car on my drive home, asking God why he had allowed the peace in my classroom to be broken by this little boy. I felt like everything about Carlos was a disaster. He was a mini-tornado going through my classroom every day. The other students also had a difficult time taking to Carlos because he seemed indifferent to the opinions and expectations of others.

Learning to work with Carlos took time. But I developed my skills as a teacher and learned about the types of interventions he needed, as well as the steps I needed to take in order to refer him for additional services. And I got to know him better. It turned out that he was witty and had a natural knack for comedy and entertaining the class. His sense of humor and street smarts were advanced for a boy his age. As much as I tried to keep a straight face when he cracked a joke or made a funny comment, I couldn’t help but chuckle or smile.

By spring, I had learned to decipher his writing. His inability to spell or use punctuation, coupled with his terrible penmanship, were definitely a challenge, but I mastered the art of reading his short responses. I learned to be more patient with Carlos, to give him more time to complete his assignments, and to give him extra direction and to work one-on-one with him. Still, he seemed unfocused and disengaged.

One spring day, I announced that we would be learning to write poetry. I started by showing the students short examples of poetry, and then I went over the rules for writing a haiku — a three-line poem using five syllables in the first line, seven in the second line, and five in the third line. After practicing a few times, I had the students share their poems. Some stood in front of the class nervously rocking back and forth or holding their papers up to their faces as they read, but not Carlos. He walked up, proud of his work, and read his poem to the class. It was about spring, and it was beautiful. He bowed comically and said “thank you, thank you” when he was done. The students clapped in approval.

We moved on to different types of poetry within the next week. I had never seen Carlos so excited before. Every day during writing he would look over at me with a big smile and say, “Teacher, are we going to do poetry today?”

I introduced their final poetry project — an “I Am” poem about themselves that would go through a peer-editing process and would then be typed and submitted to a citywide competition. A month after submitting the top five poems in the classroom to the competition, we heard back. Carlos had won first place for the third grade poetry contest. He couldn’t believe it. “I have never won anything before, Teacher,” he said in disbelief. His classmates were a little jealous, but in the end they cheered for him, knowing he seemed like the most unlikely to win something like this.

On the last day of school, Carlos came up to me and gave me a big hug. “I’m going to miss you, Teacher,” he said.

“I’m going to miss you, too,” I responded.

There were many things I didn’t understand about Carlos when I first met him, like why he was always disheveled, cranky, and unfocused. With time, I learned. There were occasions when I would let him take home apples or snacks that were left over, because his family didn’t have enough food to eat. He always lost his books because his family seemed to move from home to home. He had been the victim of abuse, one of his parents had been incarcerated, and he had also been institutionalized for some time before appearing in my classroom. This little boy had been carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, but it didn’t break his spirit. His sense of humor was intact, and his ability to write poetry was astounding. I never knew he would hold such a special place in my heart. Even today, years later, I think about him and send prayers his way, hoping life is being kind to him.

When Carlos walked into my classroom on that fateful day in the third week of school, I felt he had so much to learn. In the end, I discovered that the real lesson had been for me.

~Daisy Franco

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