In the forty-five years I spent teaching children from preschool through high school, they taught me more than I ever taught them.
With young children there is no need to guess. They are honest and guileless. They tell you exactly how they are feeling, and if not allowed to use words, they show their feelings through their behavior.
Six-year-old Greg (not his real name) was disruptive, interrupted with smart-aleck comments, and tested my boundaries at every turn. He was also bright and capable, but unproductive unless the attention focused solely on him. Outside the classroom, I noticed his mother seldom corrected him even when he was blatantly rude.
What Greg was trying to teach me was that his father was dying, and his mother was distracted. As his life spun out of control, he desperately needed to express the fear and frustration he felt. Like all children, Greg sought stability and predictability in his shaky world. Rather than coddle Greg, I was strict with him, requiring him to behave as a class leader. He still acted out periodically, but he learned to expect a swift consequence. Greg flourished in that environment, and his classmates began to not only tolerate him but include him. He taught me to look beyond outward behavior and that children will rise to the expectations placed upon them.
Seven-year-old James and his family had just emigrated to the United States from a South American country. His parents barely spoke English, but he and his younger sisters picked up the language quickly. James acted macho, entering the classroom like a bull in a china shop. Aggressive and clumsy, he invaded other children’s spaces and intimidated them.
James was trying to teach me that he didn’t feel confident in his abilities. Since he was afraid to try new things, he would play the clown, getting his classmates to laugh at his antics. It was his way of distracting others from his perceived failure.
I learned that James’ dad worked as a dishwasher in a local restaurant. The family lived in a trailer park with very few amenities. Sometimes James and his sisters were dirty and smelly, causing other children to shun them. But his parents were dedicated to building a good life for their family in America. His father took on multiple menial jobs trying to earn enough to support his family. Finally, his odd-jobs efforts helped him build a successful landscaping business. Eventually, James’ mother was able to begin taking some college courses. Through much hard work, James’ parents were on their way to achieving the American dream for their children. After they moved to Florida, James called me to tell me he missed me. I missed him, too.
Marissa was a seventh grader when she joined my youth choir. She was shy, not wanting attention drawn to her. She also had a learning disability which made reading difficult for her. But I had to discover this for myself by looking past the chip on her shoulder. Marissa would become angry and combative when she felt embarrassed by her disability. She needed help to follow a score but was ashamed to ask for it, rejecting it when offered. Although the other kids weren’t unkind to her, she just didn’t fit in.
Marissa taught me that even though she rebuffed attention, she desperately needed affirmation. She needed to feel that she was making a worthy contribution to the group. I began to look for ways to commend her, whether it was her singing posture or her ability to blend her voice with those around her. I established partnerships in the group, encouraging the pairs to support each other in any way their partner might need. Soon, Marissa was allowing her singing partner to help her put her music in order, find the right page, and follow the score. Marissa taught me that, to flourish, every child needs to feel included, valued, and productive.
The children in my classes and choirs taught me so many valuable lessons. What a privilege it was to learn from them for forty-five years.
Cindy L. Freeman is the author of award-winning short stories and three published novels: Unrevealed, The Dark Room, and I Want to Go Home. Website: www.cindylfreeman.com; Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/cindy.l.freeman.9. Her books are available from amazon.com or hightidepublications.com.