MONDAY, AUGUST 20, 2018
I was 23-years-old when I started teaching band and general music in Greensburg, Indiana. Shortly after the school year began, I fell into a routine and did everything “by the book.” Each day I had lunch in the teachers' lounge at the middle school, hoping to get to know people and make friends. But, I also discovered this was where some teachers complained about students and their families. Not all
of the teachers, but some of the ones who ate in the teachers‘ lounge at that time of day.
I started venting, too. I complained about how kids wouldn't listen in General Music - a required class for students who did not take chorus or band. I was determined to take NO BS whatsoever. After all, I was a first year teacher, the first woman band director in the history of this small, rural city of 13,000 people (at the time) and I was letting them know that I WAS THE BOSS OF MY CLASSES. DARN IT. Then I met Kim. Kim's daughter was in my band class. I quickly knew Kim to be the nicest person I had ever met (still true to this day). She was the librarian's assistant and she loved each and every student. She had a sweet southern Indiana drawl and would often sit next to students in the library, helping with their homework. I noticed that sometimes she actually finished their work for them. Kim was born and raised in Greensburg, married her high school sweetheart, had three kids and knew everyone. Through Kim, I eventually came to know one of the secretaries and the guidance counselor. I learned how much they cared about the kids, and how much they knew about them.
I started to listen to Kim’s responses to my complaints about the students, such as, "Matt just doesn't even pay attention to anything in my class. It's like he's asleep." Kim listened to me, then softly offered, "I don’t think he gets a lot of rest with his father's illness. They spend a lot of time working around his chemo schedule." I had no idea.
I started to spend more time with Kim and the secretary, having lunches out instead of in the teachers’ lounge. We would sometimes eat in the cafeteria with the kids where the counselor always had her lunch. I started to know these kids I taught and it changed my teaching style for the better.
Still, I had a few "challenging" students in my general music classes. One of them, Carl, was particularly difficult. He never spoke. He was a textbook passive-resistant child. He did nothing and nothing bothered him. I was frustrated and asked the guidance counselor about him because I wanted to understand. She told me that no one from his family, not one person, had ever graduated from high school. If the kids actually showed up to school, they were considered to be doing "ok." No one really expected much else.
I glanced over at Carl one particular day in November 1998. His red hair was long and covered his freckled face. He was small, bone-thin and wearing his usual fading t-shirt, ripped-up jeans, and sneakers that had worn through in spots. He sat slouched over his chair, had scribbled his name on his paper, but nothing else was marked. We had been doing worksheets of some type that day, and I asked the kids to share answers with their neighbors at their seats. I started to talk to groups of children and walked around, and eventually I made my way over to Carl. He was silent, talking to no one.
“Do you listen to music?,” I quietly asked.
“Does anyone in your family, or at your house, listen to music?”
“Is there a song or a band that you could name right now?”
Silence for a moment, followed by a muttered "Marcy Playground?"
Marcy Playground was indeed a band, mostly featured at the time on the "NOW That's What I Call Music" CDs that used to advertise on television. Regardless, he knew a band, he knew of some music. We had an answer!
That was how I initially bonded with Carl. It was one of the questions on the paper, “Who is your favorite musician?” and he wrote, "Marcy Playground." I circled two other questions on the paper, and softly said, "just finish these two, that's all I am asking you to do for today." That was the first time I really saw Carl's face, and maybe a small smile.
A few weeks later the students had a different worksheet assignment. Again, I walked around the classroom and circled just a handful of questions for Carl to complete (as I sometimes did for a few other students as required by their IEPs). It was time to go over the questions. I read the second question and waited for the students to raise their hands so I could call on someone.
Carl's hand slowly raised into the air. I called on him and he answered the question - correctly. "That's right," I said, trying to balance wanting to dance around the room with not wanting to embarrass my student. Class continued normally and ended. The students left for their next classes and I followed them out the door. I walked as fast I could down the main hallway toward the guidance counselor's office, tears burning at my eyes. I burst into her office: "DEB! DEB!!!! CARL RAISED HIS HAND IN MY CLASS!" She put her hand over her mouth, made a fist pump and gave me the biggest hug. We happily wiped away our tears for a few minutes as I described it to her.
It was the first time in his life, at the age of 12, he had ever raised his hand in a class and it forever changed my purpose and mission as a teacher. I can’t say that it changed his life, but I know he felt pride that day and several days that quarter in my class.
If I had never met a person like Kim, the library assistant - a woman whose heart had enough room for every child and then some, I might have never taken the time to reach out to students like Carl. I might have never sought out the guidance counselor’s advice on resources/accommodations. I might not have heard the secretary share the story of the student who gave her the free school picture “proof” as a Christmas gift, wrapped in a Kleenex, simply because she offered kindness and compassion each day the girl was signed in late by an angry relative.
I was taught that compassion matters by compassionate education support professionals who were able to take the time to get to know students outside the standard classroom experience at school. It changed my trajectory as a teacher and a person, and I am forever grateful for that. Even more grateful for those people.