77: A Good Warmer-Upper

77: A Good Warmer-Upper

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

A Good Warmer-Upper

I don’t really think in terms of obstacles. My biggest obstacle is always myself.

~Steve Earle

One late summer day, Jason appeared in the junior-high learning center to take academic assessments for the upcoming school year. Toothpick slim, with wavy dark hair and dancing blue eyes, he possessed none of the usual adolescent awkwardness. In fact, he seemed bent on charming me as I administered the tests designed to reveal grade-level performance and learning gaps. However, when I checked his work, my heart sank. In the language section, numerous gaps appeared. In fact, his grammar skills revealed major deficits.

When I went over the results with him, I wasn’t sure how to explain his low scores without impairing his will to succeed. I hemmed and hawed, and finally resorted to the classic question, “How do you think you did on the language portion?”

Jason wiggled around in his chair, grinned, and said, “Well, Mrs. Johns, what I think I need is a good warmer-upper!”

Inwardly, I smiled at his optimistic confession. His cheerful attitude gave me hope, because a willing heart can overcome all sorts of obstacles, including missing language skills. I chose to believe the best for this engaging young man who wanted so badly to succeed.

At the time, I had no inkling of how he would help me in the years to come.

As the school year began, Jason made fine progress in closing the gaps, although it was never fast enough for him. He was crushed by not being on grade level, and he continually fought feelings of inadequacy and failure. Fortunately, our school had a sports program, and his natural athleticism caused him to succeed in soccer and basketball. For the next couple of years, his sports performance helped offset his dread about all things academic.

Our small, private school was an updated version of the one-room schoolhouse concept. Since the junior high and high school students were grouped together, it was possible for a teacher to have the same students for several years. By the time Jason reached high school, his learning gaps had long since disappeared. With satisfaction, I observed him plow through grade-level academic skills with grit and hard-won confidence.

Then came the dreaded required elective — speech. In spite of his quick mind and athletic ability, speech was a hurdle he would rather not jump. However, over the years, I had learned that the same people who would rather throw up than speak in public would gladly role-play in dramatic productions. With that in mind, I presented a good warmer-upper.

Dramatic competition was a popular event at our annual Student Convention, so I wrote a one-act play and offered Jason an acting option. He accepted and received a lot of positive reinforcement for his character of a grumpy walrus who, symbolically speaking, ate his problems. After that, his issues with public speaking vanished. In the following years, he gave speeches, recited poetry, wrote essays, and won several awards. His innate leadership skills flourished with platform time. He was a bright light, a star performer in our school.

Then, a huge setback occurred. At least, it seemed that way at the time. Jason and his girlfriend married when he was a junior in high school. His future threatened to derail with the challenges of being a teenage husband with a baby on the way. Nevertheless, we rallied and provided the support he and his wife needed. They graduated with honor and dignity.

My contact with Jason diminished after graduation. Occasionally, I would see him at a basketball game, and once he called me with a random question about poetry. His confidence in my knowledge of language-related topics warmed my heart.

Three years later, enrollment at the school had decreased to the point where we were unable to operate in the students’ best interests. Nevertheless, closing the school was a heart-rending decision for me. For thirteen years, the school had been my life. I had the privilege of working at a place where people loved and respected me. Now that those doors were closed, what would I do?

The next fall, I enrolled at the local university. Although I pursued a long-time dream of obtaining a master’s degree, it proved difficult. I was a nobody at the college, a lowly graduate assistant who performed grunt work for professors. When I made copies, ran errands, and graded papers for someone else, it felt like I had taken several steps backward.

One especially discouraging day, I wandered through the basement of the university library, attempting to do a professor’s irksome chore. The tomb-like atmosphere pressed down on me. I felt buried alive, overwhelmed with graduate studies, wasting my time on a fool’s errand. I couldn’t find my destination and there was no one to ask for directions. The room I was looking for seemed to have floated away like a ghost.

Then I heard someone speaking. I doubted the speaker had anything to do with the missing room, but the sound might lead me to people who could help. Soon, I glimpsed college kids leaning against a building wall at one end of a nearby courtyard, collectively paying attention to the unseen voice. Rays of sunlight permeated this patch of basement, an odd anomaly.

I waded through students and peeked into the crowded room. To my utter surprise and joy, I saw that Jason was the speaker. His blue eyes flashed warmly as he addressed the audience; the listeners seemed enthralled.

I slipped away after a few minutes, but my heart soared. In spite of the odds, Jason was in his element, achieving his dreams. Before I left the scene, I asked a student about the meeting. He explained that the president was outlining the year’s goals for the Student Council.

I smiled. That sounded just like Jason.

In a moment, my personal perspective shifted from despair to a can-do attitude. Seeing a former student flourish gave me what I needed to push through the challenges of graduate school. With perfect timing, Jason provided what I needed most to get me back on track — a good warmer-upper.

~Mary Pat Johns

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