When I was a first year teacher I had a student that will forever be etched in my brain. Juan Carlo was at least a year older than the rest of my second graders and no less than six inches taller than all of them as well. He had an infectious smile and a limp from the Polio that he fought while he briefly lived on the streets in El Salvador before his dad and step mother brought him to the US. He spoke zero English and I quickly learned his Spanish wasn’t that great either. He had spent very little, if any, time in a classroom until the day he entered my second grade.
As you might imagine, a brand spanking new teacher and a brand spanking new student did not make for the best classroom mates. JC’s frustration quickly turned to angry physical outbursts that took up class time and for sure interrupted the learning of the other students. But no matter how many times he flailed on the floor or kicked desks or went screaming from my class, I knew, way down deep, buried under all that anger, was a sweet young man with the most endearing smile who could charm the pants of anyone without speaking a word. Also, he had to be smart or he never would have gotten even that far. In spite of his outward behavior, I knew he was a good kid in a bad situation and I did my very best to help him realize that, and remind his mom as often as I could because she was struggling right along with us. We all made it through the year, even if just barely. JC got placed in the correct school for his needs and I taught his younger brother two years later and learned that JC was doing fantastically. It was a long year of blood sweat and tears, but we all grew in unexpected ways from it.
Eight years later, older and wiser I stepped into an 8th grade homeroom with warnings to “watch out” for Tim. Tim was tall and lanky, much like second grade JC. However that is where the differences ended. Tim was successful, privileged and brilliant, smarter than any teacher in the building and very well aware of that fact. I remember sitting in an opening day assembly where the principal was going over dress codes and watching Tim untuck his shirt and lean back on the floor just as the principal was explaining the need to sit up straight and tuck in your uniform. I remember thinking this must be what the other teachers meant by “watch out for Tim”. He was a good old-fashioned wise-ass. That, I could handle.
I took Tim aside after the assembly and appealed to his intelligence. I said,” look, I’m new here and I don’t know anything about you but I can glean a few things from the purposeful uniform breach. You’re sick of being here. You know there are bigger and better things out there and you don’t want to hear one more word from the people in charge about why you have to behave their way.”
He looked at me shocked and I could tell he was taking a minute to formulate an appropriately obnoxious response to a situation he had never found himself in before. He simply answered, “yeah” and that’s when I made him a deal. He had to promise me to just play the game for one more year. I told him to keep his head down, his mouth shut and do what’s asked of him because I know it was easy and quick. In turn, I promised never to lecture, to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was a great and smart guy and to let him write whatever the heck he wanted in my class as long as I could use it to teach the others without him being embarrassed or pompous (for the record, he was neither).
It worked. I got through that year with Tim not only without any trouble, but with compliments from other teachers and his parents about how he’d never complained so little about school in his life. I’m no teacher of the year, but I am someone who respects students for who they are at their core. This kid was smarter than us and he needed to be treated accordingly. He still had plenty to learn, but he needed to be met where he was in order to be taught. He’s one of my favorite students to this day.
Right now, as a parent, I am faced with raising a kid whose got a little bit of Tim and a whole lot of JC. I have to admit that teaching this kind of kid is a whole lot easier than parenting this kind of kid. My instinct is to quit the whole deal and homeschool. I know that’s not an answer. So we will do the work. We will see the specialists. We will make changes, we will implement the strategies and we will try not to let this thing beat any of us. I will pray for accepting teachers and parents of classmates. I will throw myself at the mercy of whoever has a solution. Most of all, I will try to be like JC’s mom and Tim’s parents and love and support my little bugger no matter what trouble he may cause.
Because, in the end, that is the most important job of all.
Disclosure: The names in this post have been changed. However, in over ten years in a classroom, there were many JCs and Tims. Names don’t matter, people do.
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