If you’ve been following my blog this week, you know that I’ve been writing about gifts I’ve received from students, everything from Starbucks cards and candle holders to homemade pencil sharpeners and bacon. (If you haven’t been following along, feel free to start here and catch up. It won’t take long.)
Today’s post is the final installment of The Greatest Gifts, and this last one is a little different.
In my third year of teaching, I taught a really sweet boy who we’ll call Colton. He was on the small side for a seventh grader, but he had a lot of personality and a big grin and very light blond hair. He was in my last class of the day.
One day during the second semester, the math teacher on my team came to me after first period. She told me something was going on with Colton. “I’m not sure what it is, but I think it has to do with his hair. The kids are teasing him and he won’t take his sweatshirt hood off.” Hoods were considered hats at our school and were not permitted in the classroom. “I put an end to the teasing,” she said, “but he still wouldn’t take the hood off.” Ms. G, an extremely kind and compassionate teacher, had made an exception for Colton and suggested that the rest of us do the same until we knew what was going on.
By the end of the day, the seventh grade grapevine had supplied me with the story. Over the weekend, Colton had made a movie for a Texas history project in which he played the Mexican general Santa Anna. Going for maximum realism, he had dyed his hair for the role. Unfortunately, poor tow-headed Colton used permanent dye and now his hair (and his scalp and some of his forehead and probably the back of his neck) were black.
That may not sound a like big deal. So he dyed his hair? So what? It was middle school, that’s so what. The stakes are high when you’re thirteen, and anything kids can find to tease you about, they will, especially if it’s something you’re already embarrassed about yourself. To make matters worse, we had recently read The Outsiders in my class, so kids were calling Colton “Johnny Cade” and telling him to “Stay gold.” (Again, these are not insults in themselves, but any words can become weapons when wielded by the right tongues, and that day Colton was an easy target.)
When eighth period rolled around, Colton’s hood was still up. I couldn’t see his hair, but underneath the bulky black sweatshirt I could make out his hunched shoulders and bowed head. He was a withdrawn turtle huddling inside its shell. I followed Ms. G’s lead. I ignored the hood, put a quick stop to the teasing, and went on with my day.
Except, this was not a normal day. The day Colton came to school with his hood up was the day I came to school with a Grover puppet. Let me explain.
All you need to know is this:
- A) I love Grover.
- B) I have an awesome Grover puppet that’s older than I am, which I might have stolen from my brother.
- C) After teaching and writing, my third career choice would be puppeteering.
- D) The Friday before the hoodie incident, I had sort of lost it with one of my other classes when I found out they didn’t know who Grover was. It had gone something like this: “You mean Gonzo?” No. Grover. He’s a monster that looks like this. (I draw a basic Grover on the board.) “That’s Elmo!” NO. It’s Grover. He’s blue. He talks like this. (I do an impeccable Grover impersonation.) “You mean Cookie Monster?” AAAAAAAAAAA!
It wasn’t pretty. So on Monday, I brought my Grover puppet to school to educate those ignorant kids.
I didn’t have any sort of “performance” planned or anything. I basically just showed Grover to the class and said, “See? This is Grover. Not Elmo, not Gonzo, not Cookie Monster. GROVER. And, if he were wearing a cape, he’d be Super Grover.” There. Done. Educated.
But it turned out that I sort of liked teaching with a puppet on my hand, so I just went with it. I taught class while Grover looked on, nodding, gasping at my brilliance, and sometimes interjecting. It was the most fun I’ve had since, well, maybe ever. The kids liked it too. So when I say that I ignored Colton’s hood and kept teaching, what I really mean is that I ignored Colton’s hood and kept teaching with a Muppet.
By eighth period, Grover and I had our shtick down. We were a team. Our timing was perfect. We could anticipate each other’s thoughts and finish each other’s sentences. We… wait, this is getting weird, isn’t it? The point is, I was funny. You’re just going to have to trust me on this. My class loved it. All of them. It was one of those rare times where no one was too cool for school, no one was trying to ruin it for everybody else. All eyes were on me and Grover. Everyone was smiling.
It happened about halfway through class. Colton sat up straight. He looked around the room. He saw that all of his classmates were focused on me, no eyes were on him. He looked at me, grinned a small grin, and took off his hood.
I smiled at him, but kept right on teaching. (Grover, on the other hand, might have gotten the tiniest bit choked up.)
Eventually, the other students noticed what had happened. There was a second small burst of teasing and pointing, quickly quelled. And then we talked about it. I asked, Colton told, I sympathized. And then Colton did what he needed to do to survive this middle school trauma. He laughed at himself. I’m pretty sure Grover laughed too.
That moment was a gift. It had some magic in it. The day Colton took off his hood in my class will always be one of my favorite days. Not just one of my favorite days as a teacher, but one of my favorite days ever.
Now that we’re at the end, you may think I’ve cheated a bit. After all, in the post that started this whole thing, I said that inspiring students and making a difference were all well and good but it was the “actual” gifts that I liked. Then I went and wrote about this intangible gift, told you this warm fuzzy of a story.
But I stand by my original comments because opening minds and imparting knowledge are all just part of the job. Seeing a child’s face light up with understanding may not happen as often as we’d like, but it is what we expect. The feeling when it happens is as much relief as reward.
For me, it is the unexpected gifts that mean the most, the things students choose to give us all on their own—the smiles, the stories, the encouragement when we’re having a bad day. The trust. It’s the pieces of their lives that they place in our hands that we treasure forever.
George E. Frasier said, “No one should teach who is not a bit awed by the profession.” I’m still in awe of teaching. Some days I’m awed by the fact that I did it for so long, and some days I’m awed that I’m not doing it still. I’m awed by every gift—tangible and intangible alike—ever given to me by a student. And I’m going to hang on to them all for as long as I can.
[To read more stories from my teaching career, check out my Teaching Stories page.]