After twelve days at home, I headed back to my classroom in Detroit last Monday.
I lugged in snacks and prizes, two laptops, and my lunch, then prepared to meet my students who had been on winter break. Some of our students love breaks — time to sleep, work at their jobs, and scroll on their phones. Others dread breaks — more time in somewhat chaotic or hostile environments, less food security, and less predicability. I try to keep that in mind as I stand at my door watching them walk down the halls. My students, unlike students in other districts, did not go to Cancun or Miami over their break; they likely spent their time in their bedroom, behind the counter of a Subway or a Panera, or in a car with a family member, attending to medical appointments, groceries, or other family responsibilities.
I can’t know or imagine what they experienced on their “winter break”. Instead, I try to keep my eyes and ears open to see and hear what my students are saying [and not saying] to me so that I can respond with care, and “care” can look like a lot of different things.
One of the first to enter my room last Monday was Damon*. Damon has been in two of my classes all year — required senior English class and an elective writing class. He’s not always motivated; in fact, he often falls asleep. My approach with him has been mostly compassionate and firm. At the end of the first semester, after he had procrastinated on the major project for the quarter and asked me in front of the whole class in the Zoom room to walk him through the past three weeks of instruction so that he could finish the work on time, I came down a little more than firm. “Damon, this is not how it works. You can’t opt out of three weeks worth of instruction and then expect me to use class time in one-on-one support to carry you through. This is a habit that I have seen in you that will not fly in college. You’ve got to get it together.” I stopped speaking for just long enough to hear him leave the Zoom meeting. I’d come down a little too hard, even if all I’d said was true. He didn’t return to class that day, and he didn’t turn in the assignment. When he came to class the following week, I pulled him aside, apologized, and urged him to fully opt in moving forward. He mostly has, with intermittent gentle shoulder shoves and admonitions from me.
Last Monday morning, as he met me at my threshold, he said, “Mrs. Rathje, I won’t be here tomorrow. I’m going to Ferris State to register.” I enthusiastically put up my hand for a high five and said, “Way to go, Damon! That’s amazing!” because even though he often struggles to stay engaged even at the high school level, he is believing [and so is his mom] that he can take this next step. Now is not the time for me to tell him how hard it’s going to be, how many supports he’s going to have to reach out for, or how likely it is that he might actually fail this first attempt. Not today– today is for high-fives and encouragement.
Later that same day, I was wrangling my last hour class into some semblance of order so that we could tackle the days’ content. By the time this class starts at 1:20pm, I’ve already had 200 minutes worth of seniors, so I’m running low on gas. This group challenges me. Thy are tired, too. They talk too much, they play too much, they can’t find their seats, and they certainly don’t want to learn about the context in which Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime was written. Nevertheless, I set my expectations and acknowledge those who are following instructions. However, several are still not with me, and then one too many disrespectful comments later, I hit my limit and start in: “This is unacceptable. Your phones need to be down; your eyes need to track me. This is not just for this class. Right now is your opportunity to build muscle for whatever you are facing next. This type of behavior will not be allowed on a job site or in a college classroom. You will be asked — you’ll be told — to leave. Your behavior is disrespectful and childish. You can do better, and I am insisting on better.” The eyes roll, and the derogatory comments leak out quietly, but the room has quieted a bit. I proceed with the lesson. I walk through the notes, instruct my students to open a document in Google classroom, then break them into groups and tell them to get started. I hear James* who sits near the front of the room, say “This internet sucks,” under his breath as he tries to open the document on his phone. Where his laptop is I don’t have the strength to ask right now.
I walk around the room supporting as most work to find contextual information about South Africa, apartheid, Nelson Mandela, and Trevor Noah, when James looks at me beaming, “Mrs. Rathje, guess what I just did?” I am not sure I want to engage since he’s still holding his phone and his answer may include information about high school drama, Tiktok, or something else I don’t care to know about, but he seems so excited that I ask, “What did you do?” He replies, “I just paid my phone bill! Now I don’t have to use this terrible wifi.”
“James!” I say, forgetting any frustration I felt just a few minutes ago, “that’s impressive! You must feel so accomplished. Paying a phone bill is no small thing!”
He replies, “Oh, I been paying my phone bill since I was twelve. That ain’t new.” And that comment reminds me that sometimes my students act childishly perhaps because they’ve handled adult responsibilities way too early. I can still insist they meet my expectations, but I can do so with the knowledge that they are already carrying a lot — much of which I remain unaware.
On Thursday, I handed out Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s memoir about growing up in South Africa during and after apartheid. I directed my students to the opening pages, clicked an arrow on Audible, and we followed along as Trevor Noah began his story. I moved around the room, pointed out where we were, and stopped frequently to direct my students to a reading guide so they could answer questions to check for understanding, We were about half way through the first chapter when I noticed that they were engrossed. I could tell because they turned their pages in unison, laughed at the funny parts, and began to move easily between the book and the reading guide. I was beaming. Though this might seem like a baseline expectation for a classroom full of seniors, in my classroom, it is notable.
Even more notable were the comments as we wrapped up for the day, “This is a good book!” and “I can’t wait to hear what happens next.”
I can’t possibly in 1500 words or less convey to you the complexity of simultaneously holding seniors accountable for being mature and responsible while cheering them on as they navigate the difficult and celebrating when they engage in the ordinary. I can’t describe how full my heart feels when they share themselves with me — their anticipation for a college visit, their pride in paying a bill, their enjoyment of a story. I can’t expect you to understand how blessed I feel to share space with these developing humans. You’ll have to take my word for it.
establish the work of our hands for us— yes, establish the work of our hands.Psalm 90:17