Now and then, one of my fourth graders holds out his arms for a hug. I have a third grader who rests her head against my arm when I lean over the desk to help with classwork. Those of you who know me well are probably chuckling. I’m not all that cuddly. I don’t bite or anything, I’m just stiff.
When a girl is crying in the bathroom, male teachers find the nearest lady and say “go talk to her.” It’s universal. They all do it.
I try. I go in and assess the situation. I watch her cry for a while, arms around her knees in a dark corner, or I listen to her sobs echoing off the porcelain in a locked bathroom stall. I try “what’s up?” and “can you tell me what happened?” but then, inevitably, I blurt out something like “can I get you a glass of water?” I’m terrible at this stuff.
That’s middle school, and I’ve accepted my awkwardness there. Now, though, for the first time since I became a teacher, I’m working with elementary students. They cry a lot.They get knocked down in gym and they cry. Their dads make them wear their snowpants so they cry. They get assigned seating and they cry. They get caught lying and they cry. I dole out hugs and band aids now. Once, I picked up a cool rock from outside for a girl to press against the hurt spot on her face. She looked so silly, holding that big rock to her eye, and she carried it with her for hours.
Working with younger students is a mystifying cocktail of sweetness and ickiness and fun and unsolicited intimacy. They talk about the hard things at home. They pick their noses. They hug. They spill. They sing along with stupid videos. They like to shout the answers. They have pockets full of little toys. They are sticky. They forgive quickly, and I’m grateful because this is a steep learning curve for me. I don’t know how much is too much to expect, so I expect too much. I don’t know how to fix bumps and scrapes and tears so I ignore them. I don’t know how to decide who gets to sit on the couch so I do the mean thing and say “nobody!” In spite of my growling and snapping and my ignorance and helplessness in the face of tears, they bounce in smiling every day. I’m baffled and delighted by their enthusiasm and their trust.
We have such a long way to go together this year. My elementary class (grades 3 through 7) started the year resistant to writing more than a few sentences. Now they look forward to the days when I post a painting on the smartboard and let them write about it. They love to write stories, but not a single one of them can use punctuation at all, and one of them still misspells his own name sometimes.
I want to teach them to write. For starters, I want them to write understandably. Later, I want them to write expressively. How can I teach them what a sentence is, though? Punctuation feels as natural to me as blinking. How can I teach them to spell? I don’t remember the right things to say, how the ‘e’ makes the ‘a’ say its name, how you need to change the ‘y’ to ‘i’ and add ‘es’. How can I teach the one kid to spell his name while I prepare the older girl to take her classes with the high school next year? I have no idea how to do this. It feels like I’m starting from scratch with these kids, and on the one hand, I’m thrilled to have the chance. On the other hand, I’m desperately intimidated. They’re so vulnerable, and I’m not that cuddly.