We were sitting on the carpet, a dozen pairs of eyes glued to me as we reviewed the word of the day: press conference.
“Who remembers what that means?” I asked.
Several hands shot in the air.
“Umm … it’s a picture,” one child guessed.
“Oh, so close,” I responded. “But that’s a very good try.”
With each word, I raised my voice an octave as a high-pitched scream pierced the room.
“Give me my stuff back! Give it back!”
The kids started to squirm on their carpet squares, crossed legs shifting as their eyes darted from me to their classmate standing on the other side of the room with a chair poised over his head.
“Remember, guys, we don’t pay attention to negative behavior, do we?”
The kids shook their heads no and diverted their eyes instead to the white bucket at the front of the class, anxious to find out who would be picked to “fish” out the word of the day — printed boldly across a paper blue manatee.
A blue chair flew across the room toward my co-teacher. She ducked and it hit the floor near the carpet with a loud clang, making several of the kids jump.
“Sweet pea,” I said, pointing to the little girl sitting toward the back. Her eyes widened in disbelief as her classmate proceeded to throw markers, pencils, crayons and eventually a now-empty pencil case at the two teachers attempting to calm him down. “Come on up!”
Her face lit up as a huge smile spread across her face. She scrambled up from her seat on the carpet and approached the front of the class for her first time “fishing.”
“Do we get to eat them after?” she asked.
I was only several months removed from school the first time I stepped in front of a classroom to teach. Trying to guess how old I was quickly became a running game among the kids.
“Ms. Polke, you look like a teenager,” students would say.
I would insist, however, that between the miracles of moisturizer, melanin and makeup, I was actually 43 — and only looked 16.
I’d had no classroom experience. All my college internships were in a newsroom. When the opportunity arose for me to fill in for a teacher on maternity leave, I was excited. I’d be teaching an elective to sweet, funny kids all day. It couldn’t be too difficult.
My bright-eyed naivete quickly faded.
In a community school with the overwhelming majority of students living at or below the poverty line, with test scores among the lowest in the district and an extremely high administrative and teacher turnover rate, I was walking into a microcosm of issues so complex and deep-rooted that the next few months would be some of the most difficult I’ve ever experienced.
We were running out to grab a quick lunch before our next class when we saw him limping past the fence alone. At first, we thought he’d left school and was trying to come back. He was known to wander and leave class without permission.
“It’s almost noon. Why are you out here?” I asked him through the fence.
He couldn’t meet my eyes. Instead, he nudged a pebble with his foot and mumbled, “My momma forgot to wake me up for school.”
“You’re just coming from home?”
He nodded. His hair wasn’t combed, his clothes were wrinkled and stained, and his bare arms and legs crusted against the chill of a 40-degree afternoon. I couldn’t believe this was the same kid who last week had jumped on desks and called me a bitch when I told him to stop.
He was 7 years old. His home was almost a mile from campus. And he had walked alone.
“Why are you limping?”
“My momma broke a bottle last night and I stepped on it.”
I had to catch myself.
“Have you eaten today?”
His class had eaten lunch almost an hour ago.
He walked around the fence into the parking lot and limped over to us. We took him to the classroom for some of the chips, cookies, crackers and juice we kept on hand for instances like these.
“Ms. Polke, why do our teachers always leave?”
I had only a few weeks left with my kids, but still hadn’t found a way to tell them that I was moving away. The question came from one of my fourth-graders, a brilliant, intuitive girl whose wisdom didn’t match her age. It caught me off guard, and I had to pause to collect my thoughts.
“I mean … my friends at other schools, they have the same teachers year after year. Why don’t we get to keep our teachers?”
I had to be careful. I didn’t want to lie to her. Kids are strangely perceptive to lies and insincerity, and it had been a hard-fought battle to build the trust I had with my students.
“There’s no easy answer,” I finally said. “A lot of teachers come here wanting to help and wanting to make things better for students. But things are harder here. Often we don’t know how to handle a lot of things that happen outside of school that affect our students, and us.”
She nodded, and continued working on her assignment. The tears that had been welling up for weeks almost fell as I thought about what my kids were going to say when they found out that I was just like everyone else.
My last day of school I received a handwritten card from one of my most difficult classes. The class was a group of particularly lively fifth-graders who, toward the end of the year, had morphed into some of my favorite students. Every single one of them signed the card, a few with personal messages of their own.
The card had a cutout of a heart pasted to the front. Inside, it said:
You are a flower
On a tower
We will miss you
But we will see you
Clarece Polke is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1889).