Last week, a piece came on the local news during the sports segment: Steve Yzerman, general manager of the Detroit Red Wings had named Dylan Larkin the new team captain. As I sat on the couch watching, my brain transported me back to my first classroom, near 7 Mile and Van Dyke in Detroit. It was 1989. I saw a smiling seventh grade boy sitting in the front row, center seat, wearing an oversized Yzerman jersey.
“What’s the name on the back of your jersey?” I asked.
“Yzerman, Miss Kolb,” he answered, “you don’t know who Steve Yzerman is?”
“I’m not much of a hockey fan.”
“You gotta watch the Red Wings, Miss Kolb! You’ll love it!”
This happens sometimes. My brain, crammed with thirty some years of parenting and teaching, transports me back in time and I remember a moment. I think of a student and wonder where he is or how she is doing.
In fact, being back in Detroit, thirty years after that hockey conversation and just sixteen miles southwest of that classroom, has made me think of the students in that first class more than once. It was a self-contained classroom of ten students with specific learning needs — some had learning disabilities, some had attention deficit disorder, and some, now that I think about it, were likely just behind their peers due to systemic inequities which were and have been prevalent in urban public schools.
I was fresh out of college with the degree and credentials to teach high school English, but I’d always been drawn to special ed, had always been a champion of the underdog.
Plus, I needed a job.
After graduating in December, I’d found my first gig on the afternoon shift at a group home for teenaged girls who had been court-ordered away from their families. My role was to help with homework, supervise chores and personal hygiene, and chaperone our girls on social outings. I’d had to learn physical management — how to protect myself and others in the event of a physical conflict — how to use a behavior modification system wherein our girls got rewarded for doing the right thing and penalized for missteps. They could use any points they earned for rewards and privileges.
That position taught me a lot, and I loved it, but it wasn’t teaching. So, when, by some miracle of the extensive network that is the Lutheran community, I had a conversation with a principal who was looking for a teacher for his special education seventh grade classroom, I agreed to start grad school and to try to teach these students.
Twenty-three year old me, piled all my stuff into my Dodge Colt and headed for Detroit. With a paper map unfolded on the seat next to me, I followed street by street until I got to the school where I would not only teach, but where I would live, in a small apartment in a large facility that once housed a residential school for the deaf.
Each morning, I donned running clothes and ran the perimeter of the campus grounds that were secured by an eight-foot tall chain-link fence. After a shower and breakfast, I would walk down a network of hallways and up a couple flights of stairs to my classroom.
I taught reading, spelling, math, social studies, science, and physical education, writing lesson plans in pencil in an old school lesson plan book and doing my best to follow along in the textbooks that I’d been given.
Did I know what I was doing? No. This was definitely a fake-it-til-you-make-it situation.
My memories of that year come in flashes — students with high top fades and baggy jeans joking around in the back of my classroom, me writing math problems on a chalk board, our whole group sneaking out for impromptu recess on warm days in the Spring.
The biggest adventure of the year resulted from a reading competition sponsored by Pizza Hut. Each of my students had earned a personal pan pizza, so in all my first-year teacher ambition, I decided to pack them all up in a fifteen passenger van and take them on a field trip. It probably would’ve been adequate to take them to a local Pizza Hut, but instead, I drove them from Detroit to Ann Arbor so that they could attend chapel at Concordia University, my alma mater, and then go to the Ann Arbor Hands On Museum. We ended our day at Pizza Hut, eating our free lunch before heading back to school.
Can’t you just picture 23 year old me, toting ten kids around Ann Arbor? Where in the world did I park? I don’t remember being stressed or ruffled though, not until we got stuck in a traffic jam and returned to school long past pickup time. I figured the parents would be irate, but in my memory, they were unfazed. They gathered their children, thanked me for the field trip, and headed on their way.
There’s something about the students in your first ever class — you love them with a kind of love reserved especially for them. I’ve often thought about those students, but because I moved to a different school in the northern suburbs the next year, long before social media and email, I lost touch.
Several years later, I ran into a former colleague who told me that one of my students from that first class had been shot and killed, and my chest hurt as though I’d lost one of my own. He’d been so bright, so full of personality, so full of promise.
I’ve lost others, too. One of the girls from the group home was struck in the head during a fight after she’d returned home. The brain injury left her in a coma, and she died a few months later. Another student who I met when I worked at a residential treatment facility took her own life — long before she turned twenty. A couple of weeks ago, I got a text from my former principal in St. Louis, one of our grads had been shot and killed between Christmas and New Year’s. He was 32 and a father.
I don’t like to hear these stories, but they are the ones that usually make their way to me.
Because I’ve taught in many different locations, I don’t get former students showing up in my classroom after five or ten years to say, “I was in the area, so I thought I’d drop by.” I did, of course, while I was still in St. Louis. It’s one of the sweetest experiences ever — to see that your students have grown up, achieved some goals, and they want to tell you about it. I follow many of my St. Louis students on social media. I love to see what they are doing — running their own businesses, getting their PhDs, going into teaching, and raising their families.
But the students I had before the rise of the social media — the ones from my first few classrooms — I often wonder where they are, what they are doing, and even if they are still alive.
So when I got to work Friday morning, and saw that I had a message request on Facebook messenger, I was stunned to see that it was from the young man in the Yzerman jersey, the one I had just been wondering about!
“I was reaching out…you used to be my teacher,” he started.
“Oh my goodness! I was just thinking of you the other night when I saw Izerman select his new captain!” I couldn’t type my response quickly enough. I couldn’t believe I was actually hearing from this student!
Guys, he’s a grown man — of course — with a wife and kids. He’s a police officer, and he’s stayed in touch with many of the students who shared that classroom with me all those years ago!
We messaged back and forth for a little bit, and now we’re Facebook friends. I feel like he just dropped by my classroom saying, “I was in the neighborhood.” One of my first-year kiddos, letting me know that he’s ok.
We need this kind of touch right now, don’t we, friends. We need person to person connection — remembering a teacher from a zillion years ago and sending a note just to say hi. We’re spending so much time at home on our couches, isolated from one another and watching our nation split in two on an international stage; we need to remember that we love each other one at a time.
We can decide to hate huge masses of people who seem to stand for things we disagree with, but it’s pretty hard to hate someone you shared a classroom with or someone who remembers you from way back when you ate pizza and laughed together.
It may be a challenging week with the inauguration, more demonstrations, an apparent vaccine shortage, and the ongoing pandemic. I wonder if we might all reach out and say hey to someone we haven’t seen in a while — an old friend, a former teacher, or the neighbor lady who always used to wave when you got home in the afternoon.
It just might make their whole day/week/month. It just might help turn the dial.
Much love to you, KH. Thanks for looking me up.
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.I Thessalonians 5:11