Don’t talk grades.
You’re not supposed to talk about grades during Open House. Just keep pushing parents to the projects and work on the walls. But, that’s not why most parents show up. They don’t care much about work samples or the bells and whistles you have conjured to make your class seem so exciting and technologically advanced.
Honestly, how useful is it for a parent to come and see you in Bitmoji form? How’s my son doing? Is my daughter turning in her work? Is he giving you any problems? Never has a parent asked me, “What does your Bitmoji look like?” Or, “Don’t you have any slideshows of the class reading and writing?” I’m more for giving my audience what they want, and I just figure I’ll be engaging in dozens of impromptu conferences for a few hours. Not exciting, but it feels necessary.
So, I’m deep into my twentieth or thirtieth little conference when I can feel someone staring at me, just waiting for me to finish my conversation. And when our eyes meet, she beams knowing that I immediately recognize her. It’s been a few years, but she is easy to recognize. I had her in English class in seventh grade and then had her in an academic support class in eighth grade. Her homework and effort were sparse. Her support was little to none. Back when she was twelve, she was already a professional babysitter for her mother.
It is sometimes a bit painful to watch teachers punish kids for being poor or for being terribly under-supported at home. I would walk by and see her in detention often.
Had to prepare meals and feed three younger siblings last night? Detention.
Changing diapers and bathing? Detention.
Doing exactly what your mother expected of you for several hours last night? Detention.
These detentions were never going to solve the problem and would only drive her away from anything she might gain from school.
“Hi, Mr. Bowen!”
“Hug it out,” I say, smiling. I am genuinely happy to see her. “How are you?”
“Good,” she says.
“How’s school?” There is a pause, which tells me immediately that it is not going well, but I’m not fully prepared for her answer.
“I’m not in school anymore. I had a baby.”
“Congratulations,” I say.
It is awkward to congratulate a sixteen-year-old for having a baby, but what else is there to do? It is a little surprising. But only a little. It follows a painful pattern. When you do not get the love you need, you will make someone love you. Literally. Angie has a big heart, but no one was filling it.
“I still have that book you gave me,” she says. “And I read it to my son all the time.” She hesitates, almost embarrassed.
“It’s still one of the best books ever written,” I say. When I had Angie in eighth grade, she mentioned that her favorite childhood book was The Giving Tree. She remembered carrying it around the house trying to get people to read it to her. I read the book in class one day and gave her the copy. “Everybody should have a copy of their favorite book,” I told her.
“Is it really true what you said about all those stories?” she asks.
“I don’t know. What did I say?”
“You one time said that a child needs to hear about a thousand stories or books before they enter kindergarten. Is that really true?”
“Yes. That is true. They’ll have a much higher vocabulary. Most of school will be much easier for them those first few years.”
“So, even when I read it to him now and he’s just a little baby, that still counts like towards the thousand?”
“Yes. They all count.” And I think I can see something in her eyes; something I didn’t see in her eyes as a student, but it is there now as a mother. Hope.
Every generation tries to do a little better than the one that came before, right? Maybe she’s the one. Maybe she makes a couple of key changes and pulls the family out of generational poverty. My brother often refers to our father as the first in our family line that walked upright and on land. Funny line, but a lot of truth behind the sarcasm. He was overwhelmed and bumbled his way through, but he got us all to a better place. And for that, we are grateful.
“You’re the giving tree now, right?” I ask. She nods. It is not a line that is wasted on her.
“I still have boxes of books from when my girls were little. Stop by and see me again. They’ll be here for you.”
“Thank you,” she whispers. Then she hugs me one more time.
“Thank you for always encouraging me,” she adds and is quick to leave. It was easily the most important impromptu conference I had that night.
Maybe Angie is the one. Maybe she takes the family line in a new, better direction. Maybe it starts with a good book. And, just maybe, the other 999 will follow.
For more inspiring classroom stories, please check out Mr. Bowen’s recent bestseller, Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Penumbra.