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Congratulations of Class of 2018

I feel a bit sad that the Class of 2018 is graduating. My last kids are leaving high school. The third grade students who were in the class I taught before I retired will walk across stages and receive diplomas this week. As long as they were in school, I held a connection to children playing on ball teams, performing in plays, singing in youth choirs, and those listed on honor rolls.

During my teaching career, I taught students ages 8-12 years old. Grades 3 – 6. Those elementary years when children begin to show strong personalities and form habits and determine likes and dislikes. I watched them blossom and grow. I know it’s selfish, but I think that every child that was my student is just a little bit mine. Just a tiny, tiny part. And I take my share of blame for their failures, as well credit for successes.

Children don’t know that we teachers follow them. How we remember them and say, “He had a beautiful singing voice when he was 9 and in my class. Yes, I heard him sing a solo at church and he is very talented.” “I’d expect her to be on the honor roll. When she was in my class, she completed her homework every day and she always asked questions during class.” “He organized the playground football game when he was 12. He had all the skills to be the quarterback even then.” “The stories she wrote as a 6th grader were beyond her years. I’m not surprised she’s published a book and I’m proud of her.”

As I write this, I’m looking at my last kids as pictured in the 2008-2009 Capshaw Elementary yearbook. Smiling 8 and 9 year olds. Eager to learn. Eager to please. Well-behaved, most the time. I congratulate Josh, Alyssa, Lain, Chloe, Erica, Aozora, Michael, Parker, Matthew, Jacob, Chris, Sarah, Lupito, Katelyn, Madeline, Georgia, Hunter, Abigail, Rochelle, Michael and Andrew.

I hope these graduates take time to reflect on the past thirteen years. About the experiences that were happy and not so happy. About things that were easy and not so easy. About the Best Citizen Award received in third grade. About the being picked first, or last, for the playground ball team. About reaching a goal of 100 Accelerated Reader points. About a class trip to the zoo. About the fear of standing in front of classmates to give an oral report.   Those experiences that happened while we teachers were watching and now remember.

And as high school graduates open the next chapter of their lives, they should know they have a host of supporters. Not just their parents, their grandparents, but also their teachers. And I’d be remiss not to include sport coaches, dance teachers, Sunday school teachers and youth leaders, choir directors, even babysitters.

Graduation is a time to celebrate. Not just for the graduates, but for everyone. Their successes are ours.

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Teachers Tell Some Stories

Teachers must tell the best stories because the four headline storytellers for Storyfest in Dogwood Park on Saturday, May 5 are teachers, some retired. We teachers gather stories and some we can tell.

            I started my teaching career at East Sparta City School with thirty-nine fourth graders. Yes, 39.  Just days before the first day of school Mrs. White, a teacher assistant, helped me find teacher manuals and a grade book. She had worked for many years and she was my mentor. She arranged the students’ desks in straight lines and showed me the storeroom where I found student textbooks and classroom supplies, a box of yellow chalk and chalkboard erasers.

During the first week of school, my students led me through the school hallways to the outside playground and told me the playground rules. They showed me our assigned cafeteria tables and told me which cook would most likely give an extra yeast roll. I am forever indebted to those well-behaved and kind children whose teacher fumbled thru 180 days that school year.

To celebrate the end of the school year, I planned a piñata party. Husband hung a huge multicolored donkey from a tree branch on the playground. The children had never seen a piñata, and they squealed and clapped when I told them it was filled with small toys and candy and they could hit it until it broke open and the treats would fall out. I tied a blindfold over one of the boy’s eyes, handed him a wooden baseball bat, and told him to hit the piñata as hard as he could.

He swung that bat wildly. From side to side and not close to the piñata. The children scattered, barely avoiding being clobbered. “Stop!” I screamed several times and finally he held the bat over his head. I moved toward him and talked calmly as if taming a wild horse. I lay a hand on his shoulder, grabbed the bat, and took his blindfold off.

Then we discussed where others should stand while one person hit the piñata. Some swung hard. I envisioned the bat flying through the air and cracking someone’s head open. Others barely tapped the donkey. The piñata remained intact and the students began to lose interest and I wanted that donkey split open.

Husband’s look said, “What were you thinking?” He took a turn with the bat, without the blindfold, and after several hard hits, the donkey burst. Waxed paper wrapped candies and tiny plastic cars fell out. My students cheered and shoved each other to get the treats. The candy was so hard that it couldn’t be flattened between two rocks and no one wanted flimsy toy cars.

But the party was a success because these children liked red Kool-Aid and store bought cookies, and they got to play all afternoon. I was glad was hurt and I never, ever had another piñata party.

Oh, the stories teachers can tell. Maybe we’ll hear a school story or two at Storyfest. I hope so.

Fingers and Noses

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 8.11.19 AMWhat is it about a kid’s finger and his nose? Evidently, an invisible magnet on the end of a child’s pointer finger attracts metal hidden deep inside that child’s nose. If this vision is repulsive, stop reading now. I understand. I don’t like it either. But not so long ago, Husband and I and two of our Grands laughed hard about fingers in noses, and then I thought of all the nose-pickers I’ve known.

My Grand looked downright cute wearing Husband’s TTU baseball cap. The cap bill slung low to one side and my Grand cocked his head. A perfectly innocent pose to capture on my camera phone. Click. I held the phone in front of Husband, “Look at this cute guy. I’m sending it to his mom.”

“With his finger up his nose?” Husband said and burst out laughing. My Grand’s finger was really close to – not up – his nose. But Husband’s comment gave my Grand and his younger sister, who stood beside him, an idea.

“Take another one!” my Grand said and he stuck his pointer finger second-knuckle deep inside his nose. “Me, too!” his sister said. She matched his pose. Their heads bumped against each other as they laughed. Husband’s laugh was a snort.

My two cute Grands. Wide open eyes. Mouths open. Laughing. With their fingers up their noses. I laughed so hard I could barely steady my phone for a picture. And yes, I sent it to their mother. Thankfully, she saw the humor in her children’s exaggerated poses.

As an elementary school teacher, I had at least one student in most every class who was a nose-picker, and I was always sure I could teach that child to stop. And it wasn’t just boys. Princess-like little girls dig for nasal treasures, too. I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve told a kid to take his finger out of his nose.

At the beginning of the school year, I’d whisper in the child’s ear, “Take your finger out of your nose, please.” He (again, he could be a she) would duck his head and scrunch his exploring finger with his other fingers into a fist. By December, I’d stand in front of my entire class and say silly things such as, “So let’s review the steps of division, finger–nose. Divide, multiply, subtract, finger-nose, bring down.” The nose digger would slide his nose-picking finger over his lips, down his chin, along his neck, across his shirt, and rest it on his math paper.

By springtime, I’d give the culprit a wide-eyed stare and point my finger high in the air as I continued reading aloud about the adventures of Charlotte the spider trying to save Wilbur the pig. By then, nose digger simply rested his finger on his neck for a few seconds and then the metal inside his nose claimed the magnet on his finger.

Thinking back over my decades of teaching, I didn’t convince a single child to keep his finger out of his nose. I should’ve announced on the first day of each school year, “Give me a nickel every day you want to put your finger up your nose, and I won’t try to make you stop.”

I could’ve retired years earlier. And laughed all the way to the bank.

###

A School Playground

DSC01528 Her arms are like airplane wings as she walks across a log that washed to shore with the tide.  Her two friends follow her.  One small step at a time.  At the end of the log, the girls reverse order and wave their arms as an airplane caught in a windstorm.  Two boys, about their same age of 8, stand close by.  Heads together, talking.  The boys run toward the girls.  A boy pushes a girl, just enough that she loses her balance and jumps onto the sand, but not enough that she falls into the water on the other side of the log.

The game begins.   Girls chase boys.  The five children run in circles.  Laughing.  Squealing.  They run around and around until a girl grabs a boy’s arm.  The other boy stops running and laughs as the three girls hold his friend’s arms, pumping them up and down.  What now?  The girls caught him, now what?  Jump and pump and laugh until someone falls to the ground and the boy wiggles free and runs away.  Now far, just a few feet.

Run and chase.   A game that children play on school playgrounds.  No rules.  No score.  Just chase, catch, and release.  This playground is a sandy beach in Ambergris Caye, Belize, bordered by the Caribbean Sea.  There are no fences around the playground – it’s not even on the school campus.  It’s across the street from the concrete school building painted sky blueIt’s between the San Pedro Visitors’ Center and the restaurant where I’m eating lunch on the porch.

The children are students of the primary government school, grades 1-6.  The school day is 8:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m., with a break between 11:30 and 1:00 for lunch and free time.  Children who live close walk home for lunch.  Some eat at a restaurant or buy food from a street vendor.  Some bring their lunch and eat outside.  And some, like the ones I watch, walk across the street to the beach to meet their parents, and younger siblings, at one of the five picnic tables. After the students eat, they play.

They wear school uniforms.  Navy blue long pants and white button front, short sleeve shirts with collars for the boys.  White blouses with peter pan collars under navy blue A-line jumpers for the girls.  Both boys and girls wear black slip-on shoes.  The boys wear dark socks; the girls, white anklets.

Children run along the hard packed sand on the beach and on the wooden plank piers, to the end and back.  The boys climb palm trees.  Parents, sitting in the shade at the picnic tables, call out and the children stop climbing so high and running so fast.  The older girls gather in small groups and talk.  Young children, using their hands, dig and draw pictures in the sand.  Two girls sit at a picnic table and write in a spiral notebook.  And many students, like the three girls I watched closely, walk nature-made balance beams, logs washed ashore.

As I walk down the steps from the restaurant onto the sand, children run along the water’s edge.  They laugh and squeal.  Boys chasing girls.  The girls stop, turn, and grab one boy’s arms and legs.  Four girls swing him like a hammock just inches above the sand and one step from the sea.

                                   

It’s So Much

It’s Not Much

When a teacher dares to open her heart, a student crawls in, twisting the teacher’s heart.

            Annie didn’t own Crocs with Kibitz – those trendy plastic shoes with fancy button-like decorations—that most of my 4th grade students wore.  Her shoes were Wal-Mart white tennis shoes that the school counselor purchased.  Her jeans were fashionable and well worn or not so fashionable and almost new.  She had chosen two pairs from the box of donated clothes at school.

Everyday, Annie smelled like cigarettes.  Her hair wasn’t brushed.  She ate government-paid-free breakfast and lunch and didn’t understand why she couldn’t take home the leftover food that her classmates left on their cafeteria trays.

On the last school day before Christmas vacation, twenty-two excited students crowded around my desk.   They were excited and eager for me open their gifts.

“Open mine first!”

“Mama paid a lot for that fancy candle.  She said you’d better like it.”

“Mine has the biggest red bow.”

“It’s candy.  And I helped make it.

Annie sidled close beside me at my desk and put most of the discarded Christmas paper and bows in the trashcan.  But she clutched a crumpled piece of shiny red foil paper and a big gold bow tightly in her hands.

While I continued to open gifts, Annie asked to use the Scotch tape on my desk.  She took the paper, bow, and tape to a corner in our classroom.  Then she ran back to her desk and stuck something from inside it under her shirt.  The other students didn’t notice Annie.  In fact, they rarely noticed Annie.

I put on every gift of jewelry.  I marveled over a Christmas sweatshirt that was decorated with a sequined snowman, a hand crocheted Santa Claus, and a glittery angel.

I stashed gifts of food—honey, banana bread, chocolate candy—into a basket.  These were my family’s favorite teacher presents.

As the party ended, the children ate cupcakes decorated with chocolate frosting and green sprinkles.  They drank red fruit punch.  The girls clustered in groups of twos and threes.  The boys sat in one big group on the floor.

Annie wandered toward me as I set a cup of punch on my desk.  “Mrs. Ray,” she said. “I’ve got something for you.”  She held a gift tightly in her hands.

“Do you want me to open it now?”  I asked as I sat down.

She laid her gift, wrapped in wrinkled red foil paper and the gold bow bigger than the box, on my lap.  “Yes, but nobody else gets to see.”

As I torn away the many strips of tape, Annie stood so close that her body leaned against mine.  “It’s not much,” she said.

Inside a well-worn gold paper Avon box was a button.  A plastic gold coat button with tiny glistening rhinestones.

“Read the note,” Annie said.

To:  Mrs. Ray

                        I’m sorry, but the present isn’t that much it’s all I had.  I hope you enjoy it.

                        Merry Christmas

            Annie was wrong.  It was much.

It’s so much that every Christmas I wear that gold button, held by a safety pin through the button’s loop on the back, on my coat lapel.

It’s so much that it reminds me that giving a Christmas gift isn’t about the gift.

It’s so much that it reminds me why we celebrate Christmas.

###

A Gift I’ll Never Forget

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Angel trees.  Operation Christmas Child.  Food baskets.  Bicycles for Kids.  Rescue Mission.  It’s that time of year when we know about more opportunities to give than we have dollars in our pocket.  And oftentimes, we help people we never meet.

Mikey, I knew well.  His big brother, Steve, had been a student in my class.  Steve was Mikey’s caretaker, not only at school, but also at home if both brothers’ stories were true.

Steve was absent at least one day every two weeks.  Before the 8:00 morning bell rang, Mikey, a kindergartener, came to my 4th grade class door and stood quietly until I saw him.  I knew what he’d say before he said it.  “Grandma said to tell you that Steve is sick.”  The first few times I’d asked questions and determined that Steve’s sickness was a result of lack of sleep because he’d taken care of his sick father during the night or that Grandma needed Steve’s help at home.  “I’m suppose to take his work home after school,” Mikey said.  At 3:05, he’d wait beside my desk while I gathered Steve’s books and make-up work, and he always hugged my neck after I gave him a treat from my candy stash.

Steve and Mikey wore clean clothes.  Usually too big or too small.  Our school kept a closet stocked with children’s clothes for emergencies or anyone who needed something to wear.  Several times, the boys chose a pair of jeans and a shirt.

The next school year Mikey often detoured from his first grade classroom to my room after the 3:00 school bell rang.  He gave me a hug, and I gave him a candy treat.  Just before Christmas vacation break, I learned from his teacher while we were shopping together that Mikey wore two lightweight jackets on cold days.  Together she and I picked out the best looking, most in-style little boy’s blue coat in the store.  “Don’t tell Mikey where this came from,” I told his teacher as I handed my credit card to the clerk.

Two days later I sat at my school desk grading spelling papers while my students were in Music class.  Mikey marched into my classroom wearing his new coat, hood over his head.  “Look!” he said.  His grin showed every tooth and he stood six inches taller that he would’ve measured.  He held his arms high as if to catch a falling beach ball.

“Oh, Mikey.  What a good-looking coat!”  I said.  He walked close to me.

“Smell.  It’s new.  Nobody’s never wore it before.”  He turned his back to me.  I blabbered something, blinking tears away.  He looked me in the eye.  “Teacher said it’s just for me and blue is my favorite color.”

Of course, it was.  His teacher knew his favorite color and that a brand new coat would make a six-year-old boy walk taller and prouder.  Mikey probably did all his schoolwork better and quicker that day.  Because he wore a coat that no one else had even worn.