18: Burgers and Cries

18: Burgers and Cries

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales

Burgers and Cries

Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go.

~William Feather

“God, please don’t let anything happen today that I can’t handle.”

This was my daily prayer during my first year of teaching. My school was a twenty-five-minute commute from home, and I spent every one of those minutes worrying about what the next six hours would bring.

Landing the job was a happy surprise. Just out of college, I had spent a summer studying in Mexico and returned home in late August, certain I’d missed my chance of finding a teaching position. Then I learned of an opening for a fifth grade teacher at a local Spanish immersion school. The day after arriving home, I interviewed. The next day I signed a contract. And four days later, school started.

While other teachers had spent weeks planning and preparing, I had only a few days. It was a tough way to start, and things didn’t get any easier. Some of the kids in my room had real problems. One girl had been molested by her mother’s boyfriend. A boy had just finished treatment for Hodgkin’s disease. Another girl lived above a bar. One night, she told me, there had been shooting in the street below and the family all got down on the floor to avoid being hit by a stray bullet.

And then there was my “girl gang,” a clique of three feisty ten-year-olds. Jasmine, the sharp-tongued leader, brimmed with attitude. Burly Lonette carried a chip on her shoulder, evidenced in the fistfights she started on the playground. And Lakeisha was a master at the art of smacking her lips and rolling her eyes toward heaven when I said something she didn’t like.

Even though some of my students came from stable homes, the ones who didn’t affected the whole class. Most of all, they affected me. I didn’t know how to handle the blatant disrespect, the trash talk, or the “he said-she said” conflicts that took hours to unravel. It seemed like these kids needed a social worker—or at least a teacher with more mettle than I. In desperation I clamped down, handing out consequences for even minor infractions. But it didn’t help; acting like a drill sergeant just fostered resentment. I felt like I was failing.

Morale fell and tension grew; I soon hated going to work, just as many of the kids seemed to hate being at school. My prayers became more fervent: Help me. Show me what to do. I feel like quitting. Then God gave me an idea. There was a Burger King across the street from the school. What if I took my students out to eat? Maybe that would build the trust and goodwill that our classroom lacked.

So the next day I made an announcement.

“Every Friday from now on, I’m going to take one student to lunch at Burger King.”

“Great,” someone muttered, “I’ll bet she only chooses the good kids.”

Ignoring the comment, I said, “Every week, I’ll randomly draw a name. By the end of the year, everyone will have had a turn.”

Students sat up with interest as I picked the first name. I got the feeling that many of them didn’t go out to eat very often—even to a fast food place. Maybe this was a good idea. After the first outing, I was sure of it. If nothing else, it had been fun, and everyone—me included—needed some fun in life.

The months went on. Every Friday, the chosen student and I chatted over hamburgers, fries, and Cokes. Sometimes, the student was one who had been particularly difficult that week, but that didn’t matter. I never discussed behavior during those lunches, choosing instead to focus on family, hobbies, and friends.

Perhaps the student whose turn I most dreaded was Jasmine’s. I had made some inroads with the other members of the “gang,” but not with her. She scowled at me when I smiled, made snide comments under her breath, and once, when I ordered her to the detention room, delivered a speech so venomous that after she left I put my head down on my desk and sobbed. She really seemed to hate me, to the extent that when her name was chosen, I wondered if she would refuse to go.

She didn’t. That Friday, the two of us walked across the street together, ordered our meals, and had a pleasant conversation. It was as if, for that half hour, she had called a truce.

I wish I could say things changed with her after that, but they didn’t. In fact, not much changed with many of my students. I was too young, too green, and too unsure of myself to do all the good I meant to. But at the same time, I’m glad for what I did do. Maybe that trip to Burger King meant something to the kid whose mom yelled at him that morning, or the kid who usually ate alone, or the kid whose family couldn’t afford to buy him a two-dollar kid’s meal. I hope it did. Looking back now, eighteen years later, I’m pleased that I tried.

~Sara Matson

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