Twelve-Year-Olds Become Adults
Since retirement, I’ve been spending more time at my gym. It’s a great way to keep active and social. Because I need a knee replacement, It’s also a place where I realize I’m not thirty. I spend hours in the pool doing physical therapy.
Needing a knee replacement is similar to being pregnant. Often people will come up to me while I’m doing my exercise and explain the horrors of their knee replacements. Sometimes they’ll continue to explain hip replacements, shoulder replacements, and the need for a new hip. Everyone’s story is different.
“Oh, I see you’re doing the before-knee surgery,” an elderly woman in a flowered skirted bathing suit said, “I had mine done three years ago, and I’m still having trouble. So who’s your doctor?”
I politely told her my doctor's name and the hospital where I’ll be having the procedure.
“Yes,” she replied, tucking her white hair inside her bathing cap. “I’ve heard he’s a good doctor, but I would never go to that hospital.
“I had my knee done five years ago,” a fit-looking sixty-ish man in a speedo shared. “The best thing I’ve ever done. Who’s your doctor?”
I tell him the doctor’s name, and he laughs.
“Yeah, he’s a great doctor,” he says, chuckling. “My wife told me I had to go to him because he was so handsome.”
“That’s why I’m seeing him,” I admit, smiling as I continue marching up and down the pool stairs.
“Just do the therapy,” he says. “You’ll be fine.”
After completing the exercise routine in the pool, I head for the hot tub. There aren’t that many people using this. I push the green button to turn on the bubbles and relax in hot water.
Sighing, I close my eyes, hoping I won’t have to discuss local politics, grandchildren, or the latest episode of some random television program. I say a little prayer that no one else will discuss their ailments.
A few minutes pass, and a man in a red bathing suit asks if he should reset the bubbles. I find myself opening my eyes. Another person in the hot tub says, “sure, that’ll be great.”
“I hope this isn’t a weird question,” the guy in the red bathing suit asks, sitting across from me, “but did you work at Dover Middle School?”
“I did work there,” I say. “I’m retired now. Why?”
“I’m pretty sure you were my sixth-grade teacher,” he says. “Are you Mrs. Smith?”
This man is much too old to have been a student of mine. He has graying hair.
“I am Mrs. Smith,” I say. “In my head, you’re twelve, so please tell me your name.”
He shares his name with me, and his twelve-year-old face comes rushing back. His smile is the same, but that’s about it. I loved this kid. He struggled as a student, but the effort he put into everything he did made me hope he would be a successful adult.
He told me of his successes. For example, he owns several gym franchises and online companies.
“That’s wonderful to hear,” I said sincerely. “I always wonder if students I had would succeed or be imprisoned.”
“Well, I was in jail for about five years,” he said very straight face.
“Were you?” I asked.
“No,” he said, laughing.
We continued reminiscing about former students. He is in touch with some and shared what he knew of their life stories. Many of my former students were married with successful careers and children.
We talked about the kids who may have turned into criminals. I told about a few students who did go down that path. Neither of us was surprised.
I had been in the hot tub for about thirty minutes and knew I had to leave. As I walked up the few stairs to the hot tub, I turned to say goodbye. I assured this man, my former student, I would check out his websites.
Later that evening, I sat down to look for his website, but I couldn’t remember what it was. At one time, students like him were part of my world, but now I realize those students are turning into productive adults. It was lovely to hear the impact I had on his life. But now it’s time for me.
Meeting a Former Student
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 a new group would appear on a late August day, willing you to care for them, teach them, and 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."
"Wow, Billy, it's so great to see you as an adult. How are you doing?" I asked the man who I had last seen when he was twelve.
"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.
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 loosely based on this student. I hope her creativity and resilience have helped her live a better life.