37: Family of Rejects

37: Family of Rejects

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

Family of Rejects

A teacher’s purpose is not to create students in his own image, but to develop students who can create their own image.

~Author Unknown

Growing up, the first day of school had always been exciting — new clothes, supplies, and classes. Now, at twenty-three, the first day of school had me in a panic.

I was the new teacher.

This was not the beginning I had planned. I had just celebrated my birthday, the new year, and my divorce. Unloved and unneeded, the rejection of a failed marriage still hurt.

I’d graduated in December, and a school more than sixty miles from my apartment had hired me. I would start the semester with a class of twenty-two fifth graders.

As I entered the school, stale carpet assaulted my nose and the aroma of cleaning products stung my eyes.

“What happened to the last teacher?” I asked the principal as she walked me to my classroom.

“Well —” The warning bells cut him off. “She left a week into the year. There have been thirteen substitutes in this class since then. But don’t worry, we have a substitute the students are familiar with as a co-teacher for you.”

This did little to calm my nerves.

The substitute was friendly enough, and the kids seemed happy to see her as they entered. They were wildly curious about me, clamoring to ask questions, talking over each other, and showing off. Before the end of first period, I had a headache.

The kids sat wherever they wanted, talked whenever they pleased, and only a few paid attention to the substitute. As she attempted to lead the class, I watched the kids fixing their hair, drawing, passing notes.

One girl crawled under her desk, and I spent the next half hour trying to coach her out. She only smiled.

One boy raised his hand, crying, while the students around him began screaming and complaining. As I approached him, the smell hit me.

“Go to the restroom,” the substitute instructed before calling the office for cleanup.

The bell rang a few minutes later, dismissing the students for fine arts class — my conference period. The substitute led us to the room.

When the door closed behind them, she looked at me. “Things you need to know: Tracy is the girl under the desk. She barely knows her letters, and can’t read at all.”

“Why is she in a regular class?”

“She goes to a special needs class for reading and language, but the school doesn’t offer anything for her when it comes to math, science or social studies.”

“What does she do while she’s in our class?”

“Just leave her to herself, and make up a grade.”

“Are you joking?”

“No, Paul is the same. He sits next to her. You’ll only see them half a day. If you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone.”

“What about Kyle?” I asked, referring to the boy who’d had an accident. “Shouldn’t we check on him?”

“No, he’ll get a change of clothes and be back later.”

We entered our room to find a man cleaning Kyle’s desk.

“Hi, I’m Sylvia.” I said, offering my hand. He looked at it, then at the substitute, before turning back to work without a word.

“One more thing,” the substitute said. “Conference period is personal time. I usually leave campus for a few minutes. I’ll be back.”

She didn’t return, and neither did Kyle. I found out later that his mom had come to pick him up.

The custodian never said a word as he finished cleaning the desk. He began emptying trashcans, vacuuming, and washing the chalkboards. I got the feeling teachers didn’t show him a lot of respect. Or maybe he just felt that way.

He finished by putting his supplies back in his cart and pushing it to the door. I crossed my arms on my desk, lowered my head, and wondered what I had gotten myself into.

“They didn’t tell you, did they?” said the custodian.

I lifted my head and asked what he meant.

“Most of this class has been kicked out of others. They are the rejects, the students no one else wants.”

“What’s wrong with them?”

“Depends on who you ask.”

The bell rang and he gave me a small smile as I rose to meet my students. “My name is Willie. I hope you stay.”

Twenty-one students entered and immediately noticed I was now alone with them.

“I told you she would be gone,” one yelled.

“I’m sure she’ll be back any moment,” I replied.

“Yeah right,” said a girl brushing her hair.

“Even if she isn’t, I’m still here,” I said.

“Not for long,” a chorus rang out.

Then it hit me. They were used to rejection, to seeing others walk away. The sting of my divorce was so fresh I knew how that felt. They deserved more.

“I’m your teacher for the remainder of the year,” I informed them.

“Sure you are.”

“You’ll be gone soon,” another student said.

I spent the rest of the day breaking up fights as I tried to get to know them. Many refused to answer me. One threw his desk at me. Another stood in the back of the room slamming his head into the wall repeatedly.

The minutes crept by until the final dismissal bell.

As the last child left, I sank into my chair, wanting nothing more than to curl into a ball and weep. If this was how tired and hollow I felt after one day, how much worse must it be for them every day?

That first week was mentally and physically exhausting. Gradually the students realized I cared, and that I wasn’t leaving. By the end of the first month, I no longer fought for order in the classroom. They sat at their assigned desks. Most were following directions as well as completing work.

Since the school didn’t supply work for special needs, and I refused to “make up a grade,” Tracy and Paul were working from preschool level workbooks I purchased at Walmart. I thought the other kids would make fun of them, but they didn’t. The kids had become a unit, a family of rejects.

By spring, I loved each of them as if they were my own children. I knew their moods, needs, fears, and dreams. At the end of the school year, nineteen of my students passed state testing, and all but one passed the fifth grade.

The last day was full of celebrating and fun. We played games, ate junk food, and watched a movie. When dismissal time arrived, every one of them gave me a hug and said they would miss me.

When my room was quiet, I began to cry. I would miss them too.

“You did it,” Willie said, as he pushed his supply cart into my room. “You stayed, and you saved them.”

“No,” I said. “They saved me.”

~Sylvia Ney

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