Telling an old friend I haven’t seen in many years that I teach middle school usually results first in a quizzical look and second in the question “Are you crazy?” Amidst the covert gum chewing and the well-practiced art of eye rolling, I find hope.
When young Jonas took a break from his cool, 8th grade swagger to invite the new kid to sit with him at lunch when lunch was still 2 hours away, I saw promise. Little did Jonas know that the new kid had just that morning stepped into a school for the first time. Jonas stood to gain nothing from this act of kindness. He just did it. In this exchange and countless others, I see that God-given capacity to reach out to another human being did not end with my generation or a previous generation as has been so widely reported. I have hope.
When a student from years past whose struggle still lurks within me calls or writes to tell of his successes, I have hope. I have hope because even though his so-called parents withheld food as punishment for some imagined offense, pummeled him with fists, hit him with bats and wrenches, and laughed at him from a drunken, drug-induced stupor, he stands on the brink of receiving a college degree and plans to teach school. He wants to help others. I sense the strength, the fury of the human spirit to survive, to prevail. I have hope.
When after reading together a poem about cross-burning in the 1920s a sea of hands rose and one student asked, “Why would someone burn a cross?” my first reaction was to lament the lack of knowledge. On second thought, I choked back emotion as I explained to this class in the Deep South the intention of this cowardly tactic. What was once commonplace is now foreign. I have hope.
When I reflect upon my life, I realize that hope transcends generations. Had my own teachers not impressed upon me that I, a small-town girl who first believed that college was for other people, had within me the ability to earn a degree and go on to teach others perhaps I would not be in this profession today. Mrs. Barbara Miers believed my writing was worth reading. Mr. Raymond Bowen believed education could be enjoyable. Ms. Sherry Jernigan believed learning comes through doing. Because of them and countless others, I have hope.
After those long days of intercepting love notes, reminding students that IDK is not an acceptable expression of I don’t know, and enduring one more lip-smacking show of displeasure, I must remind myself that it is in middle school that I influence tomorrow. Each day in middle school offers glimpses of hope: Hope that greatness isn’t a relic of the past, kindness and charity still flourish within the young, strength still fuels the downtrodden, and the thirst for knowledge is yet unquenched.
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