We grabbed hold of them in sixth grade, my co-teachers and I. They came to us, the girls shy and giggling, the boys with downcast eyes, some sporting team T-shirts, and some not; all of them anxious and at the same time, terrified.
We became their lifeline, explaining schedules, escorting through unknown hallways and reminding them what a single-file line should look like. We explained what QUIET was in the media center and gave examples of respectful behavior to fellow classmates and teachers alike. Procedures, practice and high expectations. Harry Wong would have been proud.
As late August spilled into early autumn, the gloves came off. We graphic-organized, summarized and passed out study sheets; we preached parts of speech and correct sentence structure and dangled our participles carefully across dry marker boards.
As novices, our students slipped the surly bonds of math and surveyed and graphed and displayed the results of their labors on enormous sheets of butcher paper plastered across the ancient concrete walls of their middle grades experience. They measured and created geometric figures from formulas for perimeter and surface area, and dreamed dreams to fill terrariums with water cycles, moss and rainbows. Their sixth grade laughter echoed in the hallways as they left us for the long days of June and July ... and August began without them.
Then came a pause, much like the dead part of winter after the snowstorms and before the first buds of spring. Those former-sixth graders had disappeared from the radar screen. Where were they? Hiding out, nonchalant and creeping like mice to their holes. I caught glimpses of them scurrying along, a brief “Hi, Miss” as they passed me in the hallway, hurrying, anxious to get somewhere before their tardiness caught up with them. They clearly had much on their minds — clubs to join, frogs to dissect and business to conduct. The trappings of seventh grade. Our thoughts turned to other matters; new students, team building and project-based learning. The year passed ... slowly.
But, just as we expected, august came again. Suddenly, THEY were back, like an adolescent Armageddon — our sixth-grade crew, now, by some scheduling magic, ours as eighth-graders. They were different, yet ... very much the same. So we began — Georgia history, essential questions, monarchies and colonies, literature and poetry and Uncas running the gauntlet ... linear equations and physical properties of atoms and the Georgia writing exam. Spring break, where art thou? CRCT ... CRCT ... CRCT. ”I am now going to read some instructions ... you may begin ... begin ... please put down your pencils; time is up ... time is up.”
And for them and us, it really was. Suddenly and finally, it was time to tell them goodbye. They came in that last Friday in hushed excitement, girls tying bows, boys smoothing shirts, everyone listening for the announcement to start the class’ final march to the gym. This would signal the epitome of three years’ worth of hopes and dreams and hard work.
Awards were called, and teachers held their breath as young ladies, many sporting 3-inch heels, made their shaky bleacher-hop down to the gym floor. Boys with football shoulders slithered cautiously along the fragile side bannisters. Congratulations were spoken, and students sipped punch and celebrated, viewing video flashbacks of their eighth-grade internship.
Dismissal came, and they exited ... the classroom, the hallway and the sidewalk emptied, swarms of humanity moving slower than I had anticipated, on their way to the waiting yellow buses. A lone student lingered behind her peers, tears marring her pretty hazel eyes as she glanced up at me.
“You’ll be fine,” I assured her. “Things will be great at high school.” She nodded and sniffed and walked on down the concrete hill.
When August came round they did, once again, pursue an unfamiliar pathway, skirting courtyards and corridors alive with strangers’ faces. They entered that unknown country where they were so afraid to go, yet yearned to be all their school career — that world where tickets are punched for destinations as yet unknown and walking in a straight line doesn’t seem quite so important.
That class will, this school year, become seniors. I think about them often, and wonder if they think of me. Perhaps they will remember the crazy teacher who stood upon a stepladder and dropped Bradford pear petals down on a snare drum to simulate the sound effects of the Drummer Boy of Shiloh. Then again, maybe not.
But one thing is for sure. We as teachers did our pedagogical job, now it is their turn. The innocent faces of the classroom — the grins, the freckles, the clowns, the drama queens — are being transformed into the serious images of the future — doctors, lawyers, housewives, truck drivers, pilots, laborers, technicians, and, oh yes, teachers. They will, surely and everlastingly, make a place for themselves and their dreams because we told them they would and they dared to believe us.
They will meet the challenge ... come autumn.
Debbie Wilson is a teacher at Eastbrook Middle School.