Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Middle School- The great beyond?

As an elementary school teacher I often find myself wondering what happens to my students after they leave the sheltered world of our K-5 community. Those of us who live inside those elementary school walls often think of middle and high school as the great beyond, and fear that our children will become forever lost between their locker and their classroom. In fact we often say those words, "I'm worried he'll get lost in middle school" as we try to predict what sort of plan will be best for our students. My principal finally called us out on this worry, which sent a few of us over to the middle school to see just how it works. Do our students actually get swallowed alive inside those walls, or are their passionate educators just like us working just as hard as we do for the students?

I've been over to our local middle school twice now, and each time I ran into students I taught. Students whose names I first read on paper when I was handed their kindergarten transition packet eight years ago. Students whose hands I held on the first day of kindergarten, whose mothers I promised that we would take care of their baby, students who I taught to read. It is shocking to see a familiar smile beam from a seventh grader who you still think of as a first grader. Even more shocking when the student calls out, "Mrs. Lipstick," in his deep middle school voice, so different than the voice that came from the tiny kindergartner so many years ago.

In one class my eyes fell on a student and I audibly gasped. He was hunched over his reading material, not even distracted by the visitors in the room. But I knew it was him. My birthday buddy. He was on my case load my very first year as a special education teacher. He and I spent many, many hours learning to read, write, recognize numerals and add. Learning was extremely difficult for him and once he exhausted all of the level 1 books in our book room I started writing my own. They are still saved on my computer- my series of monster books- I suppose in case I run into another student who loves reading about monsters. 

He was the student who told me Santa Claus skipped his house- that he went to other kids' houses, but not his. He was the one who pointed to a picture of a living room with a book shelf and said, "Books at home? No! Books at school." A telling comment about his home life. 

He and I shared a birthday, although I quickly realized that he didn't know when his birthday was, and didn't celebrate it in any way with his family. So for years we celebrated together. My birthday celebration was to decorate cupcakes with him. Year after year I'd contact his teachers to get approval, find him before the big day to find out what kind of cupcakes he wanted, and plan if we'd actually bake or just decorate the cupcakes. Even after my school changed their birthday policy and announced that students no longer could celebrate birthdays with cupcakes at school my friend and I kept up our annual celebration. We couldn't not make cupcakes. I worried when he left for middle school and I left for my new school that he'd get lost. I worried that his birthday would be forgotten, that no one would know he didn't have someone in his life to celebrate with him. I felt sure he was going to be lost in middle school.

Yet as I watched him read in his middle school classroom he looked confident, not lost. He was in a small class with other students, and the teachers clearly knew him well. I mentioned to one teacher that he was my birthday buddy and she smiled. "You know," she said, "We always make a big deal out of his birthday here. We don't think anyone celebrates at home. His teacher buys him a present every year. This year we had a teacher work day that day and couldn't celebrate with him and we were all disappointed." 
He isn't lost. He was found by more educators who love him and care for him just like we did in elementary school. He even has people going above and beyond for him just like we did. 

It was a wonderful reminder that educators- all of them, not just the ones in my building- are my favorite people for their caring insights and compassion. A reminder that our students will be working with educators just as passionate about taking care of kids as we are, and that they will not be allowed to fall into a locker and never come out. Those kindergarten babies whose transition plans we laid out so carefully are still being thoughtfully looked after even though they are no longer five years old.

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