Pay It Forward
I went to a BIG high school. My graduating class had over 500 students. To put that in perspective, if you don't already have it, I've worked in schools, 1st thru 4th grades & 5th-8th grades that did NOT have 500 students respectively. To add more perspective to it, my school started at 7th grade. Do the math.
My time matriculating through high school, I traveled with 12 Black students. There were 12 brown spots out of over 500 kids. Needless to say, we were both swept away & stuck out like sore thumbs concurrently. It was a challenge that I may address on a different day, in a different post, but it's not the point right now. What I learned from being both invisible & conspicuous was how to value people & things that others took for granted. Because people were looking at me but often not seeing me, I had time to take notice of what else was being ignored. Swimming in this sea of kids was a custodian who either was not visible or who was visible for all the wrong reasons.
Her name escapes me now--& I'm really sorry for it--but she was often the brunt of cruel comments from the mouths of people young enough to be her children. Dressed in a drab gray top & a dismal blue smock, she went about cleaning up behind some of the most self-indulgent people I've ever met. With good cause, the children of the well-to-do who didn't have to question what they would be or how they'd make it in the world, these spawn of the decidedly superior had been given no reason & no example of how to respect those who make the world turn. I was embarrassed by their behavior, their remarks & their disregard, & so I began speaking to her on a daily basis. I'd wave on my way to classes & she'd stop to speak to me at my locker as she pushed the big trashcan down the hall making the classroom rounds. Over time I learned of her children, a son in college & a daughter in jr. high at a different school. We spoke on how disgusting my classmates were as spoiled twits who had it twisted with their sense of entitlement.
For 2 out of 3 years of high school, I forged a friendship with the least likely person ever. She was an adult who, based on the example of my peers, did not & should not matter. Instead, what I found was a hard working woman who had more strength than those brats would ever muster, being able to clean up behind anyone but that many someones & with the gall to forget that they were CHILDREN & she the adult. & she did so with dignity & poise. I don't remember any specific lessons from my parents, just watching them engage the world & occasionally making a point to remind us to be kind to others, but I learned to respect my elders first & foremost, no matter what they did to make ends meet. When it was all said & done, when I had earned all the necessary credits to move on from that place, I learned just what kindness can do.
My graduation was a full occasion. It was full of family, full of emotion, & full of anxiety--bring on the next thing!! It was also full of boredom & waiting but that's neither here nor there. When the ceremony was over, after the silly string & the beach ball bouncing thru the graduates & us doing the wave to break up the monotony, I turned my tassel, went to find my family & bask in my accomplishment. On my way to them, stopping to hug friends & their families, I was met by the custodian. She was wearing a floral dress that hung on her in a way that evidenced she had few occasions to dress up. Still, I didn't miss that she had worn COLOR for me. Her hair was uncovered, no longer shrouded by the blue or black bandana she wore daily. I waved excitedly & excused myself from my friends. The confusion on their faces was priceless but got better later. She hugged me tight & long. She pushed me away, holding my arms, the way family does when they haven't seen you "in a month'a Sundees." As she held on to me she told me how she was there that night just for me, that no one else in that building had made her feel like she was a person, & how special that was for a child to be able to discern the difference between a woman & her job. She told me I was bright star, that I would go far in this world, & that nothing could have kept her away. Then, to my surprise & the surprise of my friends suckin' on salt licks, she handed me a card that had 5 $20 bills inside.
When I go into offices & find tight faced customer service agents I put on. Some receive it & some don't. At my own schools I've tried my best to be respectful of the time & energy required to do all the jobs outside of the classroom. I've chopped it up in the front offices & entertained the custodial staff in my classroom & parking lots, made friends & kicked it outside of work. I refer to them as "Ma'am" & "Sir," "Mr." & "Mrs./Ms." no matter their function on a staff. You never know a person's back story & your position does not diminish your humanity. In the same token, I don't get caught up in false pretenses just because you are in a supervisory position. We are all here to make the machine work together, different cogs in the same mechanism. If any 1 of us ceases to work, the machine is broken, even when still functioning.
Many of the children I've worked with seem really unclear on this concept. They only respect you if they like you. & often they only like you if you're doing something FOR them. It would never cross my mind as a child, no matter how much I disliked an adult, to curse at them & dare them to say something to my parents. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I knew that if I was even going to bring my parents into the situation to handle an adult who I perceived was doin' me dirty that my own actions in the situation had to be smudge free or I was catchin' it too, if not instead. I have had to convince students that a principal, while not an infallible person, is 1 in authority & authority is something they do not have as children. I've been proven wrong on more occasions than I'm comfortable with. Inevitably some child will challenge an adult, daring them to call their parents & then the parents come in ackin' a damn fool & supporting the child in all of his or her nefarious behaviors. If I had that kind of pull as a child I might not bother to listen to me either & just run amok knowing whoever feeds me will continue to do so without consequence & perhaps throw some Jordans on to sweeten my sour tempered deal.
The point is, as I prepare to watch my babies graduate from the 8th grade tomorrow I'm reflecting on some of the lessons that do NOT get driven home. I have balked at the responsibility of having to make good people out of some of the raw materials that have been dropped off in my classroom. In hindsight I was angry at this responsibility ON TOP OF having to also ensure that all of my students, at their varying levels of proficiency coming in, somehow managed to meet the same mark or exceed it. I was supposed to turn different into the same with little time or support. There are things I do naturally, lessons I will teach & knowledge I will impart because it's what I do & how I was raised to engage children. But some help would be nice at times. I can't guarantee or even act like I can require parents to impart certain wisdom at home. I am just as disgusted by the lack of REQUIRED personal pride as I am by the lack of the shared importance of personal kindness. We have to start moving away from this distorted notion that the individual is the center of the universe & reach for the hands of those behind, in front of & next to so that we can lift each other up. We have to share what we know beyond what quality of weave hair is the best or how to disrespect girls/women.
Each of us will have a person or persons who come along to reshape our views & change the way we step in the world. I hope as my own students graduate, a rite of passage, & move into the next phase of their maturation, that I have left some stamp on them that will affect the way they too interact with the world in a more positive way. It will surely take time but I look forward to running into them on the street in the years to come to hear about their own impact. I wish I could cheat & go back to the future to pull together my words to them tomorrow but I will simply follow my heart & do what needs to be done in the moment, as every good teacher does.
Watch me move.