I believe that people do change. Yes, change is rare, but at least once a year, in a 7th grade classroom, someone will change. Of course there are the observable changes, the much-coveted inches gained, the outcrop of little pink bumps on a previously smooth forehead, but beyond this, I have observed another type of change.
Take for example, Lazaro. There were months that felt like decades when I didn’t know how we would make it through the year. My heart would fall when I saw him in the hallway between 1st and 2nd period. So my prayers for his absence had gone unanswered.
A typical class day when Lazaro was present, which was about 98% of the time, might include one or all of the following: pushing his chair back, causing it to crash on the floor inevitably, making all the other students look to see what had happened; now out of his seat, lying on his desk, again attracting attention; grabbing another student’s pencil from out of his or her hand and hitting the student with it; or, in the process of getting a drink of water from the fountain, running his hands under the cascade so that on his way back to the seat he could flick droplets of water on whomever he happened to pass. On the occasions when he was sitting still it was to practice writing his name in a gang-like script. “How do you write a ‘Z’ in cursive?” was the extent of his curiosity. He turned in nothing.
At least once a week, for the first 3 months of teaching, when confronted about his behavior in class, he would throw down whatever was closest for dramatic effect and storm out of the classroom yelling: “I hate you, I hate this class!”
Then, mysteriously, after our return from winter break, things began to change. Lazaro became intent on finishing the Renaissance Encyclopedia project and asked to go to a different room where he wouldn’t be distracted so that he could finish his writing on Leonardo daVinci. I stopped praying for him to be absent. Sometimes a kid changes and there is a logical explanation for it. They might move out of their mother’s house and into their father’s house. But with Lazaro there was no such explanation. It was as if some process, not unlike a signal in a plant bulb that tells it to send out green shoots of life, was occurring inside Lazaro, and now his inner timing mechanism was directing him to sit still and write about Michelangelo, or daVinci. He did not altogether give up flipping girls’ hair as he walked to the trashcan but he did not yell and storm out of the room any more. At the end of the year, the 7th grade teachers all agreed that Lazaro should receive the most improved award.
On award night, I was asked to say a few words about Lazaro. He walked in late just as we were announcing the award. As it turned out, his mom had been deported that morning, leaving him and his siblings with various “aunties” and the boyfriend. On stage, Lazaro exhibited none of the showmanship he was known for in class, he looked down at his shoes and twisted his foot back and forth as I spoke of the change that had enabled Lazaro to go from a bouncing disruption to a student who completed his assignments “without me having to hound him.”
When I began teaching, not that long ago, I swore that middle school was just a means to high school. I am a lover a dry, wit, a sophisticated humor which dies a silent thudding death in a middle school classroom but may be appreciated in high schools. Middle school years are the years of toilet humor, where bodily noises and Lake Titicaca are some of the most amusing things one can conceive of. But there are moments rare and unlikely, when I have witnessed a child going from a chaotic bundle of furious energy to a learner, someone who feels a sense of pride in accomplishing his work. I saw a day go from ‘the day Lazaro’s mom got deported’ to ‘the day Lazaro won the award for most improved.’ In the presence of such moments I believe, for now, I will stick with being a middle school teacher.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.