Thursday, June 2, 2016

Monster


When I was 10 years old, my favorite book was There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar. I was reminded of this childhood favorite by all of the recent hullabaloo over transgender bathrooms. So, I pulled my dusty old box of memories out of the closet so I could read it with my kids.


It's about a bully named Bradley who is the oldest and meanest kid in school. All his classmates hate him and call him a monster, and his teachers say he has serious behavior problems. Bradley gets sent to see Carla, the very calm, very unconventional  new school counselor. The two strike up an unlikely friendship. Carla sees potential in Bradley and thinks he can change his ways. She convinces him that if he believes the people who call him a monster, then that is what he'll become. Thanks to Carla, he begins to believe in himself the way she believes in him.

I won't give away the surprise ending or how a boy ends up in the girls' bathroom. You can read that part for yourself. After all, what kind of teacher would I be if I didn't sprinkle a little curiosity dust in your face?

But now that I'm reading this story through grown-up glasses, I can really relate to the way Carla shepherds the lost sheep of the fold. As a teacher, I seem to always have a heart for those hard-to-reach students. The ones who tend to be hated and despised by everyone else. The ones who pretend to be all hard and unbreakable, but deep down inside they are an absolute mess.

I recently had a student like this. 

She came to my class mid-semester because she had a personality conflict with her previous teacher. She kept getting sent to the principal's office for refusing to comply and for obnoxious outbursts of profanity.

I knew all of this before I met her. 

I had been prepped and I had been warned. So, I knew what I was in for when she showed up at my door with new class schedule in hand. 

And she did not disappoint.

Like all high school students, she liked to push my buttons. But this kid took it to a whole new level. Every day it seemed, she would try to provoke me a little more than she did the day before, just watching and waiting for that moment when I would crack. That moment when I would lose my cool and yell at her just like everyone else in her life had always done before.

But I didn't crack and I didn't lose my cool. 

I didn't yell at her when I came in from hall duty and she was sitting at MY desk using MY computer. I didn't yell at her when she picked up MY phone and tried to order pizza in the middle of class. I didn't yell at her when she tried to staple a strand of my hair or when she wrote on me with Expo markers or when she squirted me with whiteboard cleaner. 

I wanted to yell, but I didn't.

Instead, I watched and I waited patiently until, one fateful day, she cracked. She lingered after the dismissal bell rang until everyone else had gone. Then, I marveled as that hard, unbreakable shell of hers melted away, revealing the absolute mess underneath. 

Her mother had been an addict. 

She had been taken away by CPS and then had been kicked out of foster home after foster home until the only place left for her was a group home for the unwanted. She was a product of the system. She had already tried to kill herself multiple times, once since she had been on MY roster.

We talked for an hour. 

I asked a lot of questions. I did a lot of listening. I never lectured or scolded or judged. Then, she wanted to know about me. She asked how my baby died and how I dealt with that kind of pain. I showed her my blog and let her read the stories about losing Cohen.

After that day, she didn't try to staple my hair anymore. 

She didn't write on me with dry erase markers or squirt me with whiteboard cleaner. I never found her sitting sit at my desk using my computer when I came in from hall duty. She was still loud and obnoxious. She still had a potty mouth. But we understood each other. She knew my pain and I knew hers. 

We had a bond that went beyond student and teacher.

I helped her start her own blog. I helped her design her graduation party invitations. I helped her fill out her college application. She wants to help other young people who got a rough start in life like she did. She was, by far, one of my most challenging students ever, but she also turned out to be one of my favorites. 

Somewhere along the way, she stopped believing I was the enemy. Somewhere along the way, she stopped believing she was unwanted. Somewhere along the way, she stopped believing the people who told her she was a monster.


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