We are generally careful about separating church and state in public schools. So, I was surprised when a parent told me that the Son of God was a student of mine. Mid-semester, this bright young man was making a B in my class. His mother appeared unannounced at my classroom door at the end of the day and told me, “My son is a gift from God. You are giving Jesus a B.” She stood with both hands on her hips and cocked her head to the side waiting for my response. I would like to say that I was quick enough to say something such as, “Nice to meet you Mary.” Instead, I laughed nervously and tried to explain why her son was earning a B.
I understood that her reality and my reality were not the same, but she did make a valid point that each student in the classroom was someone’s child. What would happen if every teacher, administrator and school staff member reminded themselves of that daily? We are teaching someone’s child.
I will not insult your intelligence by talking about the changing dynamics of the definition of family. Every one of you reading this has had different experiences that help you form your own definitions. What we do share is a conviction that whatever our family portrait looks like there should be frames made from, at the very least, compassion and nurturing.
I, like all educators, have many heartbreaking stories to tell of students who came from families who lacked that frame. Heck, their family portraits were missing entirely, and all that was left were empty frames. However, our portraits can be altered. There was the teenage boy who was small in stature and very quiet. His mother and father were in prison for gang activities. The raising of this boy was left to the gang, some of whom were aunts and uncles. Because he was never going to be physically suited for gang life, this pseudo family knew he wouldn’t make it on the streets. Their respect for the parents superseded the need to have another member. That young man was given the chance to use his education to change the family history. And he did. He graduated from college and is leading a far more “normal” work life.
The framework surrounding that young man’s family portrait was not traditional, but it worked for him because somewhere in all the messiness were compassion and nurturing.
Teachers have to reach students whose family portraits are as varied as snowflakes. Early in my teaching career, I taught a ninth grade boy who was “plain old ornery.” My standard response was to call home to speak to a parent after my own attempts to bring order had failed. When I told this young man I was going to call home he responded, “Well, my dad is not around, and my mom is in prison for cattle rustling.” Instead of Jesus, I had Jessie James. I called his grandmother who gave me the oft-heard response, “I can’t do anything with that boy.” I was on my own. Luckily, we worked it out, and once I convinced him how smart he was, his attitude changed for the better. His grandmother, and probably his mother, loved him dearly. The frame needed refinishing.
I am not pronouncing a new and impactful answer for change in the classroom. I am reminding parents and educators that we have a whole bunch of “someone’s” children in our rooms. Even those children without a “real” family are someone’s children. Their portraits may be framed with Tiffany’s finest or Hobby Lobby’s cutest, or have no frame at all. They are our children. What a responsibility we have. We must nurture and show compassion. It’s exhausting, but it is what we do.
In the meantime, I am adding this to my resume. “I taught Jesus.”