September 8, 2020
When I was a kid, I grew up in a two-family house on Everett Street in Arlington, Massachusetts.
My nine cousins and their parents lived upstairs, and my family lived downstairs. Our family was smaller. We only had six children, but we had two turtles, and once, after going to the Ringling Brothers Circus, we had a chameleon, but he didn't last too long. I always suspected my mother put him outside, but I could never prove it.
So much of what happened on ninety Everette contributed to who I am today; someone with a wild imagination and difficulty saying no.
My cousin, Tommy, was six weeks older than me. Everyone outside of our household thought we were twins. Tommy had a difficult time talking. The only people who could understand what he was saying were his parents and me. Needless to say, we spent a lot of time together.
On our first day of kindergarten, we were both relieved to be in the same classroom. Tommy and I, like most kindergarteners in the sixties, had never been to school before. We didn't know what to expect. As usual, we were talking. We were in our own world and not paying attention to any of the other kids or the teacher.
At some point, a giant woman with a red beehive hairdo came over to our table and slammed a ruler in front of us. It was our teacher, Mrs. Austin(not her real name). Right away, both of us were afraid and learned quickly to be quiet.+It was during this initial meeting that we formed our opinion; Mrs. Austin was mean!
It was obvious from the get-go that our scary teacher couldn't understand Tommy. When she asked him a question, he was hesitant to answer. As her eyes bulged out of her head and she banged the ruler on her hand, Tommy knew he had no choice.
I said a quick prayer as he gave his answer. "I can't understand you; speak more clearly."Mrs. Austin screeched as she came closer to our table.
I understood him perfectly and quickly said, "he said the answer is three."
"Well, that's right," Meany Austin said, glaring at both of us.
I looked at Tommy, "It's okay, don't worry about her," I assured him.
But he did worry. He hated Mrs. Austin, and so did I. She continued asking him questions and then turned to me and said, "I can't understand him. What did he say?'
She was never kind. Maybe she was overwhelmed as there were close to forty children in her classroom. Perhaps she believed being mean, yelling at small children, and smashing her ruler was the only way to control the mob.
It only made us tremble. There were a few brave souls that challenged her strictness, but they would be dragged by their ears to the coat room.
One day Tommy and I were talking and laughing. We were supposed to be doing lessons in our alphabet book. Tommy's eyes grew wide. I felt my ear being pulled and knew I was being taken to the dreaded coat room.
I was in the coat room so long that I wet my pants. Fortunately, girls had to wear dresses to school. I was too afraid to do anything. I found a sweater in the lost and found and wiped up my puddle as best I could. I had to do something with my underwear. But I didn't know what. I felt like I was in that coat room for days.
Finally, Mrs. Austin brought me back into the classroom. I walked over to my table. Tommy wasn't there. She moved his seat to a table far away across the room. There would be no more talking between us. I looked over at Tommy, trying to get his eye. He finally looked at me and shook his head.
I spent the rest of that class sitting uncomfortably in my wet underpants, praying for the day to end. Walking home, I tried to reassure Tommy and myself that everything would be okay. He had more to lose than I did. Mrs. Austin was truly mean to him. If she had a chockey, he would have spent most of the day in it.
As the year continued, Tommy and I were forced to be apart, but Mrs. Austin continued to ask me what he said. Often times I couldn't hear him, and he was afraid to repeat himself.
Thinking about my potty accident, I would often tell her he needed to use the bathroom. Tom would look at me sadly and walk into the bathroom. I tried my best to figure out what he needed when I couldn't hear him. Mrs. Austin made this so hard.
When the school day was over, we could finally relax and play with our friends, cousins, and siblings on Everett Street where we both felt secure. It was great to leave that witch of a teacher and play fun games like Run-over man or Vietnam War.
I don't have any fond memories of kindergarten, and neither does Tom. But I wouldn't change growing up on Everett Street. The love, memories, and laughter we share today were formed by looking out for each other.
When I retired from teaching, people had many questions. Were you going to miss it? I had no idea.
Wouldn't you miss your students? This question confused me. Every year I would get close to my kids. Then in June, those students would leave, and new a new group would appear on a late August day, willing you to care for them, to teach them, and yes, to love them. Finally, with sadness, I understood that in June 2020, I would say goodbye to my last group. I would miss them as I always did, but no new students would take their place.
After you finish your first year of teaching, you understand that there are students who will always hold a special place in your heart, students who you wish you could forget because of the challenges they created, and students who will stay with you forever. As the years continue, you know that there will also be students you don't remember and students whose names you forget, but whose faces and where they sat in your class never leave.
A few years ago, I was walking down a busy street in Portsmouth. A group of men was unloading a moving truck. Suddenly one of the men threw down what he was carrying and sprinted towards me, yelling, "Mrs. Smith! Mrs. Smith!" When he caught up to me, he wrapped me in a tight bear hug.
I stopped and looked at the smiling face of this tall, broad, bearded twenty-something. The smile and mischievous blue eyes of this burly man brought me back to a day about fifteen years earlier. The man standing in front of me was forever twelve in my brain.
At that time, his life was far from easy. His oldest brother liked to use him as a punching bag, so did his new step-father. In my class, he had to keep up the persona of a tough guy. He found victims quickly, using words to wound and muscles to dare kids to react.
He had enough bad boy in him to make girls fall quickly in crush and, boys follow his lead. But he was also scared, lonely, terrified of home, and thankful for his respite in school. I watched his shirt ride up as he was catching a football one day, his bruised torso glaring in the sun.
Warning bells rang in my head. I knew his oldest brother and the turmoil that must be continuing in his house. "Hey, I noticed you have quite a bruise on your stomach. How did you do that?" I asked.
He pulled his shirt down tight, protecting his shame. He didn't respond. My concern grew, and I tried again. Still no response. I had to get serious. " I am worried about you. I know your brother, and I know your life isn't easy. When you're with me, I'm going to do whatever I can to be sure your safe, but I need your help."
His response was quick and defiant, "f*** you!"
I knew I had a long year ahead of me. How I reacted to this angry, challenging boy would make all the difference.
"Wow, you're pretty angry. I would never be that disrespectful to you. Come with me." I demanded sending the rest of my kids into the school with my more than confident paraprofessional.
We passed the office where I'm sure he thought I would put him and headed into the guidance counselor's room. I made sure he heard my words, all of them. " Mr. G, Billy (not his real name) was playing football with his friends, and I noticed he has quite a bruise on his stomach. When I asked him about it, he said, f*** you. He's pretty angry, but I don't think it's with me. Maybe you can help him with that. Also, I would like him to know all the words you can't say aloud in my class.
I proceeded to list every swear word I could think of, looking at him intently as I swore. Please don't send him back until you figure out what made him say f*** you to me.
He was gone for a long time before he came back and slid silently into his seat. He didn't make eye contact.
When class was over, he mumbled," I'm sorry."
"I'm not sure you know what that means, Billy, but someday you may. But first, you have to learn how to trust, so that's what we're going to work on."
So now, here I am with Billy fifteen years later. He seems confident not like the broken preteen boy I knew. I wondered about his brother, and his family. Had he broken away from the abuse? I didn't think the busy streets of Portsmouth was the right place to have this conversation.
"Wow, Billy, it's so great to see you as an adult. How are you doing?" I asked.
"I'm doing great. I started my own business this year, and it's doing really well," Billy said smiling. "Are you still teaching?"
"Yup, still in the same classroom," I replied.
"Hey, sorry I was such an asshole in your class. You were my favorite teacher, you know. I think you helped me begin to believe in myself." He said sincerely.
Teaching is so much more than standing in front of a room with a textbook. It's the daily emails, the parent phone calls, the meetings (so many meetings). It's struggling with challenging students, modifying lessons to meet the needs of the diversity of the kids in your class, and learning always learning new curriculum, the latest technologies, common core, and a myriad of other challenges.
Meeting Billy as an adult, knowing I had a part in his success, reminded me that this is why I did it.
April 5, 2021
Middle School is a challenging time for most students. Preteens are trying to fit in, to be part of the group. Individuality does not happen during this stage of development. Everyone strives to be just like everyone else. If you have some piece of you that seems different you hide it. This is what happens to the majority of kids who have a parent dealing with addiction.
In 2000, a bright, creative girl in my class was quite mysterious. She had one close friend but kept others away. She had a tough exterior and a last name that confirmed she was from a long line of badass family members. This made it easy to keep others away.
Each day after lunch, she would beg to use the phone to be sure her mother was awake and caring for her two-year-old brother. On the few occasions I questioned her about the phone use, she would hold back tears and plead. I could never get her to tell me enough to investigate.
After many phone calls and letters, her mother finally agreed to meet me. On the day of our meeting, a skeletal young woman appeared in my room She tried to hide her mouth, but I got a glimpse of her black and missing teeth. Her inability to converse with me assured me that I was talking to a drug addict. Our meeting was brief, I don't remember the conversation, only that I had to rescue her daughter.
Her daughter, the bright, creative girl never got the help she needed. I called the Division of Child and Family Services, but I didn't have enough information for them to complete an investigation. As the school year continued, my student shared less about her life. Eventually, she stopped asking to use the phone.
I started writing stories about kids who I couldn't reach, or whose life was so much more difficult than I could even imagine. The character July in the book, July in August, is very loosely based on this student. I hope her creativity and resilience has helped her live a better life.