From 1989 to 2015

In 1989 I began my professional teaching career in a small second-story classroom near the corner of Seven Mile and Van Dyke in Detroit, Michigan.  I had nine students in a self-contained classroom.  Each of my students had been diagnosed with a learning disability, attention deficit disorder, or some other ‘problem’ that prohibited his or her success in the ‘regular’ classroom.

So why did they get me?  God only knows.  I was fresh from college with only a semester of student teaching under my belt — student teaching in a high school classroom in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  Although I had worked for eight months in a group home with behaviorally ‘disordered’ girls, I had little to no experience with students who had these kinds of learning challenges.  I had no special education certification. None.  I had one course in college called ‘The Exceptional Child’.  What did I think I was doing?

Ah, to be young and invincible.

That year in that small classroom with those kids — Larry, Larry, Braun, Andrea, Charmaigne, Andrew, Maia, Chris, and Robert —  began to shape my heart and create the cheerleader/coach within me that would get in the corner of many kids who believed they couldn’t do it, were doomed for failure, and didn’t measure up.   I was so determined not to fail at this first job, and none of them were going to fail either.  Not one.

I’m not going to lie, it was a chaotic year.  I had to learn how to respectfully disagree with my principal.  (Yeah, that was an ugly lesson.)  I had to acknowledge that I had no clue what I was doing. (First privately, then for all the world.)  And I had to find my allies.  (Two male coworkers who found great joy in pranking me and getting me to laugh at them, and ultimately at myself.)

I have no idea if I taught those kids anything that had to do with the curriculum.  I am not even one hundred percent sure that I knew what the curriculum was!  But do you know that I piled all of them into a 15-passenger van and drove them from Detroit to Ann Arbor, participated in chapel at my alma mater, checked out the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, then went out to lunch at Pizza Hut with our Book-It Rewards? I paid no attention to time, so we got caught in rush hour traffic on the way back to school and I returned them to their parents far later than our anticipated arrival time.  I don’t remember any parents being upset at our tardiness.  In my memory, they all matter-of-factly retrieved their kids and thanked me for taking them on the field trip.

That classroom was the germ-infested petri dish that fostered the growth of Rathe-isms such as “what they say says more about them than it does about you,” “anybody can change,” and “see what had happened was.” Each of those Rathje-isms, my students will tell you, has a sermon attached to it that gets recited year after year after year.

It’s 2015.  Last week I was tutoring a high school freshman who is scared to death to take her first round of semester exams.  She kept saying, “I’m not good at __________.” I was transported back in time to my little classroom in Detroit where I started coaching students to say, “I’m getting better at ___________.”  I looked across the desk in the basement of a home in Dexter, Michigan and said to the little freshman, all 95 pounds of her, “We’re going to change that phrase.  You’re going to start saying ‘I’m getting better at _____________.”

I loved that class in Detroit.  They taught me so much.  I’ve been sharing their lessons ever since.

Philippians 1:6

“…he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

One thought on “From 1989 to 2015

  1. Superb. Very much like the more well-known “Dangerous Minds” or “Freedom Writers.” I can see and hear you with those “originals” in Detroit. How blessed THEY were.


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