Love My Students
I do not always love my students. To say otherwise would be a lie, an attempt to convince myself and others of a fact that simply cannot be true. My students come from varied backgrounds, and having grown up in an upper middle class family, I can sometimes find it hard to relate. This particular group of students is unlike any other group I’ve worked with before, and all my other experiences can’t quite hold up under this new normal.
That being said, let there be no mistaking that I do love my students. There is one boy who has been particularly challenging, and I hadn’t quite warmed to him until a few days ago. JJ [not his real name, don’t worry] has more energy than almost anyone else in the program. He is constantly running around, doing cartwheels, wearing holes in the knees of his jeans as he slides across the floor. He loves to break dance, and you can often find him raised vertically on one hand, balancing his body in a fleeting moment of stillness. Whether he’s engaged in an activity or left to his own devices, he’s all in, going full throttle. The trick is to keep him engaged. When he’s not, it’s all over and he totally shuts down. I find his defiant, unresponsive behavior beyond frustrating. Why can’t he just fit into these neat lines I’ve laid out? Why can’t he follow along?
During our most recent Family Night, I saw a side of JJ that has thus far remained hidden. Family Nights are a time set aside every other month for the families of our students to get together. We cook and serve a hot meal and encourage families to spend time being present, both as individual units and as a greater community. There is no agenda, just food and fun, a space to relax.
For the staff [all two of us!], these nights often include weeks of planning, and the morning before is especially hectic. Nothing else is focused on except the setting of tables, the preparing of food. Guessing at attendance is an art that I have not yet mastered, and while I find the success of these nights uplifting, I am quickly becoming aware of how much effort is required for a night meant to accomplish nothing but rest.
Anyway, back to JJ. He is the oldest of four, and it has been abundantly clear during his time in our program that circumstances in his life may well have caused him to mature beyond his fourth grade years. As families begin to show up and settle in, I watch him as he holds his younger brother Q in his lap, placing easy kisses at his temple, hands clasped protectively around Q’s middle. When JJ’s cousin arrives during dinner, he is up and running to greet her, eager to lead her to their table, quick to offer a drink and help with her coat. When I ask him who she is, he smiles and proudly announces her to be his cousin. I watch him carry plates of food and corral his younger siblings when curiosity causes them to wander too far.
I know that all of my students are good kids, despite the behavior they sometimes show during program. But it can be hard for me to remember that they are just that – kids. I hate that life has often caused so many to accept responsibilities beyond what their slight shoulders should have to bear. But I am grateful for this small moment with JJ. It has given me insight into who he is, and a glimpse of who he will grow up to be. It seems this revelation, this new level of understanding, has made all the stresses of the day worth it.