It was rarely a good thing when LaRon smiled in school.
It usually meant he was up to something.
He was late to class and wanted to see if I’d notice. He just copied another student’s homework and wondered if he’d get away with it. He was talking crap and hoped someone would take it to the next level.
As his teacher, I became rather familiar with that smile, and it sent shivers down my spine.
But on the last day of school, I couldn’t help but give him a smile back.
A few minutes before the last bell of the year, I stood before my class of 8th graders and gave them each a shout out.
“I just want to say what an honor it’s been to be your teacher,” I said.
They shifted in their seats, immediately silent. They wanted to hear this.
“Some of you have been a huge pain in my butt,” I conceded.
And almost all heads in the room turned to LaRon.
And he smiled.
Not a mischievous smile. Not a warning of wrongdoing yet to come.
He was slightly embarrassed.
So I went on:
“But I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished this year. Each and every one of you. It has been my privilege to be here for you,” and I nodded at LaRon to make sure he knew I included him in what I was saying.
Because I do mean him.
Students like LaRon keep an old man like me on my toes. No doubt. But look at all he did – all he overcame this year.
His writing improved exponentially.
Back in September, he thought a paragraph was a sentence or two loosely connected, badly spelled full of double negatives and verbs badly conjugated. Now he could write a full five-paragraph essay that completely explained his position with a minimum of grammatical errors.
Back in September, the most complex book he had read was “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” Now he had read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” How did I know? Because I had read it with him. We had all read these books together and stopped frequently to talk about them.
Back in September, if he raised his hand to ask a question, it was usually no more complex than “Can I go to the bathroom?” Now he was asking questions about where the Nazis came from, what happened to Mr. Frank after the war, did Harper Lee ever write any other books, and is the fight for civil rights over.
The last day of school is one of the hardest for me, because my classes are doubled. I don’t just have my students – I also have the ghosts of who they were at the beginning of the year.
They all change so much. They’re like different people at the end, people I helped guide into being.
And I must say I absolutely love it!
As hard as it is being a teacher, as much as you’re attacked in the media and the government, as much as you’re expected to do, the supplies and books you buy with your own money, the hours after school while your own children sit at home without you, the late nights grading and the mountains of paperwork you have to fill out to justify being kept on another year – even with all that – I love being a teacher.
And my greatest joy is the tough kids.
Every year that’s usually who I get.
When I started teaching I expected to be more of an advanced placement educator. I have several degrees, experience as a working journalist… I’m really a rather bookish guy, myself. But when I got in the classroom, it was the troubled ones, the ones in trouble whom I really excelled at teaching.
I had only been in the profession for a few years when I stopped my car in a really bad neighborhood. I was looking for an address for a homebound student and couldn’t find it. Up walked a group of tough looking kids that could have been extras from “Boyz N the Hood.” I thought my life was over until I heard, “Mr. Singer! What you doing here?”
“Andre!?” I said incredulously. “Little Andre!?
“Not so little anymore,” he smiled.
He dapped me up and gave me directions.
I see former students everywhere. Or more accurately, they see me.
The other day I was at the movies with my daughter, when a grown man walks up to me and says, “Hey, Mr. Singer. Hey, little Singer. What movie are you going to see?”
I didn’t recognize him at first because he had a smile on his face. When I taught him more than a decade ago he never smiled. He had serious health issues and always seemed miserable.
But here he was. He had made it. And though it took a while for his name to reach my lips, he knew me like I was a member of his family.
That’s the kind of relationship you get as a teacher. You’re there for the hard times. You’re there for the bad. But you help each other through it.
That’s something non-teachers don’t understand. My students help me as much as I help them.
Sometimes I got to school worried or upset about various concerns in my personal life, but as soon as those kids file into the room, all that noise is gone. In a split second, it’s forgotten. I get a burst of energy, because I’m needed. I’m there for them.
If you’ve never taught, you have no idea how good that feels.
One evening I was sitting at my desk at school, a stack of papers in front of me, feeling frustrated. I wanted to go home but there was so much work left to do. (I don’t like taking work home. When I’m there I’m a full-time husband and dad.)
So I sat in class debating what to do when three huge high school football players appeared in the doorway and came running at me.
I cringed, cowering in my seat about to be tackled.
“Mr. Singer!” they screamed, stopping in unison and giving me, their former teacher, a bear hug.
Moments like that make it all worth it.
The kids know you care. I’ve heard some folks say that none of that matters. You don’t have to care about your students. You don’t have to like them. You just have to teach them.
I couldn’t do it any other way.
So on that last day when LaRon looked up and smiled, I smiled back.
There was so much meaning in his smile. So much joy behind his eyes.
More than any report card, he knew what I knew.
He knew that despite a challenging home life, despite the call of the streets, and tremendous difficulty of concentrating and believing in himself, he had really achieved something this year.
He knew because I knew. And he smiled because I smiled.
And when that last bell finally rang, he took all of that with him.
I can’t believe I get to do all of that again this year with a new group of children!
Damn! I really love this job!