“I’m losing it,” I said to the music teacher as we stood outside of her room. The third graders were on a field trip that Friday, which meant that we were both free for an extra forty minutes. I had spent the last class period fighting with fifth graders, unable to get them all to listen to me at the same time, and the period before discovering discarded wrappers from the Halloween candy that my middle schoolers snuck every time my back was turned. “It feels like every day I get up and just fall flat on my face.”
“That’s real,” she said. “You have to put in your time with these kids, and the work is challenging. But you’ll get it.”
I paused my moping for a moment and then remembered a fifth grader who had done his work last period without prompting from me. “Actually, M did amazing in class today. He killed it.”
“You should call his mom,” she said. “I don’t think she hears a lot of that.”
* * *
What I intended to do when I got home on Friday night was knock out my grading. I just got on my computer for a second to pull up my gradebook, and next thing I knew I was on Twitter. Within a few seconds, I happened across a Lin-Manuel Miranda “gmorning” tweet.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is best known for his smash play Hamilton, but he’s beloved by the internet for his nearly unfailing kindness and vulnerability. He starts and ends each weekend with “Gmorning” and “Gnight” tweets (respectively) that have become so popular they’ve been turned into a book. Usually they make me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but Friday’s notched its arrow straight through the chink in my armor.
It’s better with you in it.
The whole thing.
It’s better cuz you’re here.
Let it dissolve slow if it’s too much to swallow.
Or wash it down w some coffee, but take it in:
Life’s better with you in it.
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) November 1, 2019
I began to cry at my kitchen table because despite all the bad calls I have made in the heat of the moment and the angry kids and my disappointment in myself and my frustration at the brokenness of an education system that underserves the students who need the support the most, I saw again that there was someone out there who was rooting for me. I felt seen.
* * *
I recently reread Gary Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy as a way of honoring the upcoming anniversary of my mom’s passing. It was the first novel she would teach in sixth grade English Language Arts, and while I read the book, I kept running across parts that I remember her highlighting and explaining to her students. One wham line comes early on in the novel: Turner has just moved to a new town and meets Mrs. Hurd, who owns the home with yellow shutters and a red door that sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise identical row of green shutters and green doors. Within minutes of meeting him, Mrs. Hurd looks Turner in the eye and says, “So, Turner Buckminster III, when you look through the number at the end of your name, does it seem like you’re looking through prison bars?”
Turner, who has already been humiliated by the other boys in town and disparaged by his own father—the new town minister—can’t believe what he is hearing. In that moment, he is face-to-face with someone who sees his soul clearly, who understands what it means to not fit into the mold shaped for you.
Years later, I am finally making the connection between this line and another motif in the book—the eye of a whale. Turner encounters a whale early in the novel while rowing to a nearby island. He wants to touch it in order to “understand what it was in the eye of the whale that shivered his soul” but the whale swims away. After he walks a path full of grief and injustice and brokenness, Turner comes back to the island and touches a whale, finally seeing that “there is nothing in the world more beautiful and more wonderful in all its evolved forms than two souls who look at each other straight on.”
I used that last passage in my memorial speech for my mom, as she daily looked straight into my soul, but now I think that many of her students would argue that Mrs. Johnson looked at their souls straight on, too.
* * *
Over the past month, I’ve taken charge of sixteen sixth graders who are meant to be “my kids.” I’m supposed to be building relationships with them since I see them for a half an hour every day. The catch is we have certain assignments to get done, which means I haven’t had much community building time.
Unfortunately, this means that most mornings my kids come in and there’s nothing stopping them (other than basic human decency) from going for each other’s throats. Variations on:
“She kicked me!”
“He thought I kicked him, but it was actually this other kid who kicked him, but he’s still kicking me anyways, and my dad said if someone hits me I should hit back”
“He called me fat!”
“He called me gay!”
“She’s insulting me!”
are usually screamed across the room while I pull up a video on mindfulness that we do every morning to help calm ourselves down. As you can imagine, it doesn’t work as planned.
What I haven’t been able to teach them yet is that life isn’t a zero-sum game—knocking down someone else’s tower doesn’t build yours back up. But even bigger than that, I haven’t shown them that I see them. The only parts of them that teachers consistently highlight are the worst parts of them, so they then turn around and do the same thing to each other. They do not yet understand the power of being seen for who you are and how they can give that gift to each other. Perhaps I have to prove to them the power first.
* * *
While I was on end-of-the-day hallway duty later that Friday, I saw that super-star fifth grader.
“Hey, make sure your mom checks her email.” I told him.
He looked at me. “Did you tell her how good I did in art today?”
I grinned. “Yeah, I did.”
Alex Johnson (‘19) is a virtual computer science teacher and a proud resident of the Creston neighborhood in Grand Rapids. When she isn’t reading Young Adult fiction, she’s playing board games with her housemates, listening to podcasts, scrolling on education Twitter, and preaching the gospel of intentional community to anyone who will listen.