This is a bit of a departure for this site. I’ve been trying to stretch my writing skills a bit so I entered an essay contest at YeahWrite. The prompt for the first round was to tell a personal story about making a visual art project. This essay was what i submitted. I got word today that I’ve made it to the second round so wish me luck. meanwhile, enjoy!
Until They Know You Care
Some teachers are just magic. If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter one somewhere in your education. If you do, you’ll never forget them.
My son had one of those teachers in third grade. I had an inkling of how special she would be when we arrived for the back-to-school open house and she informed all the parents that kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care. She then led us all in a poem she would have the kids recite every day of the year that began with the line “I AM somebody!”
Miss W was older than I am but had only been teaching for five years. It was a second career for her, one she’d begun after subbing at her daughter’s school and deciding that the classroom was the place she needed to be. She approached the kids as people, not as just students and DEFINITELY not as data points to plot and track and report back to the state board of ed. She treated the kids as her equals and let them teach her as much as she taught them. If a child had a particular interest, a rabbit hole they wanted to run down, Miss W was ready to follow along and hear what they had to say. She would give them hands-on projects like Rube-Goldberg machines and let them take over the classroom with them. She made sure they looked out for each other, bringing attention to kids when they needed extra support and asking the rest of the class to step up for their friends.
The kids loved it. Their spirit of curiosity and their spirit of community thrived in that classroom.
Toward the end of the year, Miss W announced that the kids would be doing a living history project. She assigned each kid a historically significant African American and set them to researching their lives. They had to write a short synopsis of their accomplishments in the first person and they’d get to present it to other students. My son got Collin Powell. His best friends got Thurgood Marshall and Frederick Douglass.
Mind you, this was not part of the third grade curriculum. This was something Miss W wanted these students to know. She was taking them on a journey through African American history because she wanted to make sure they knew who these people were and how they had contributed to the mosaic of America. And the project allowed them to actively learn and to teach each other, rather than Miss W handing them the information in a lecture or reading assignment.
My son was beyond excited about the project. We’re not African American but about a third of his classmates are and he knows that history has not been kind to people of different races in America. He took to learning about Secretary Powell with the same kind of joy and commitment he took to the other experiential learning assignment Miss W has given him. He practiced his first person summary until he had it letter-perfect and grew more and more excited as presentation day grew closer.
The night before the presentation, he started talking to me about what he envisioned for his costume.
Hold up. Costume? No one ever said anything about a costume. It was 12 hours before show time and he was telling me he needed military regalia for this project for the first time.
This was not good news. I’m not crafty. I can’t sew. I don’t know what an Army General wears. I’m a Democrat, for Pete’s sake! I haven’t studied Collin Powell that closely!
But there had to be a costume. Disappointing Miss W was not an option. She cared and her students cared in return. We had to do this right.
Inspired by sheer desperation, I had my son grab an olive green polo shirt from his drawer. Together we assembled a collection of supplies. We googled a photo of Powell in uniform and set ourselves to recreating it. With a set of metallic Sharpies we were able to fashion the epaulets that a general wears to display all of his stars. I affixed them to ordinary safety pins with scotch tape and admonished my son to be careful not to tear them or stab himself in the face when he pulled the shirt on. Operating like a surgeon and assistant, he handed me different colored markers in rapid succession as I tried to make the large rectangle of ribbons that Powell had earn
ed over his career. We decided that effect was more important that accuracy, largely because we simply couldn’t zoom in close enough to the photo to see what the military decorations looked like up close.
Within a half an hour, we had a reasonable – if haphazard – facsimile of a military uniform. It wouldn’t get him past a guardpost on a base but it worked for a living history project in school.
When the year came to a close a few weeks later, my son asked me for some wrapping paper because he wanted to give Miss W a gift to remember him by. He carefully folded and wrapped the uniform shirt and presented it to her that day.
There is probably no other way my son could have thanked her more deeply for what she taught him than to hand off the visual piece of that final, special project. Giving back from the pool of knowledge she gave him was truly only gesture that would suffice.
Miss W was right. Once he knew that Miss W cared, that made him care about what she knew. And it made him care that she knew that he had learned all she had to teach.