As you may have read, I moved my teaching life back into the classroom last week, hoping that my students — the seniors who have been moved back and forth from remote to in-person instruction over and over since March 2020 — would join me there. I planned my classes, rearranged desks that had been moved during the roof repair, opened up windows to let in fresh air (and to lower the boiler-heated room’s temperature to a setting somewhere close to “less-than-suffocating”), and positioned myself at my threshold, mustering all the “we’re back” enthusiasm I could find.
And they came.
Well, some came.
Our students trickled in on Monday, looking around skeptically as though asking, “are we really back? Are we actually going to stay this time?”
I started class by assuring them that yes, we should be back for good this time and by re-setting expectations — again.
“Your phones need to be down; your eyes need to be up. Learning requires engagement — a choosing to attend, to try, to open the mind.”
But for some, it seemed too much.
Take Darren*. Darren has been with me all year. He has not just one class with me, but two. He is in ELA IV, the required class for all seniors, and he is also in 12 Writing, an elective for a handful of seniors who are most likely to move on to a 4-year college.
All year he has struggled — mostly to stay engaged and stay awake. Once he gets started, he is typically able to complete any assignment I give him, but it’s the starting that’s the thing. After all, if he doesn’t start, he can’t finish.
I don’t have a clear picture of what’s going on at Darren’s home, even though I’ve met his mom a couple of times.
I know he loves basketball, even though he’s not on the team.
I know he wants to be an athletic trainer, even though he’s not currently connected to any sports.
I know he’s been accepted to college, even though there’s a seemingly impossible-to-fix issue with his FAFSA, and even though when he walked in last Monday, he was failing ALL — yes, ALL — of his classes.
Why? Because the whole time we were working from home, he didn’t have a charger for his laptop or the $35 to replace it. He couldn’t fix this problem, he had missed four weeks worth of assignments, and he didn’t see a way to climb out of this hole and make it to graduation.
So he walked in to class with his ear buds in, turned up his music, put his head down, and went to sleep.
I tried to wake him — once, twice, three times — but he wasn’t staying up.
Rather than just let him check out, I called our behavior interventionist, who took him for a walk. I’d hoped he’d wake Darren up and bring him back — but I’d lost him for that day.
It was that very day that I had posted my most recent blog, “Under These Circumstances.” While Darren was out walking to wake up, I received a message from a dear friend I’ve known for more than 40 years who said he’d read my blog. He said, “I just sent you [a gift] in memory of my dear friend and high school instructor who passed away on April 3. In his will he asked that his estate be used for progressive social change in America….if that doesn’t describe you and what you do, nothing does.”
My jaw dropped — the amount he’d sent would allow me to incentivize my students for the remainder of this year and into next fall and give me the freedom to help when situations arise, and in my context, they do always seem to arise. I was buoyed by the encouragement and by God’s way of providing for my students, which He has done consistently from the moment I took this position.
On my way home that day, I used these newly gifted resources to stop and restock on snacks, prizes, and a few essentials. As I was paying, I requested a little cash back, just in case.
The next day, Tuesday, Darren came back to my class, and his routine from Monday began to repeat. The headphones went in, his head went down, and he began to fall asleep. We were in the middle of the research paper that would be the major grade for the semester. If he opted out, he would certainly remove all possibility of passing, and I was not about to have it.
“You are not quitting,” I said with my jaw set, “you are too close.”
“It’s no use,” he replied. “There’s no way I can make up all that I missed. I don’t have a charger. There’s no sense in trying.”
“That’s not true. You just have to get started. It’s one step at a time. Just start with what we are doing today. Have you asked about getting a charger?”
“It’s $35. I don’t have that. It’s no sense in getting started. I can’t get caught up.”
That was it for me. I walked to my wallet, got $35 of the cash that had been provided the day before, and said, “Darren, come with me.”
I asked the teacher across the hall to keep an eye on my class, the rest of whom were working on their research, minus the one who had already been sent out because he was throwing up [it’s all part of a day in the life of a teacher, friends].
Darren reluctantly dragged behind my Momma-Ratch-on-a-mission pace as we trekked to the office where we could get a charger. At the door to the office was our vice principal, a great champion of our students. I told him what was going on, enlisted him in my conversation with Darren, and made it clear to him and to Darren that under no circumstances was I going to allow a student who was this close to graduation, who had been accepted to a four-year university, who had a dream to be an athletic trainer, to sleep out the last four weeks of the semester.
That ain’t how Mrs. Rathje works. Not today. Not any day.
The vice principal encouraged Darren, told him we were on his team, and let him know that we would support him every step of the way to graduation. His tone was encouraging and not quite as in-your-face as mine was that morning, Darren seemed to hear us, even if he wasn’t sure he believed us.
The Vice Principal said, “You can still do this; you’ve got to believe me.”
Darren said, “It’s too late; It’s not possible.”
I said, “It is possible. We’ve been down this road many times. We wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true. We’ll believe it for you until you believe it for yourself.”
I glanced at my watch. We’d been in the hallway about five minutes; I knew I had to get back to the others.
“Come on, you’ve got work to do. Let’s get to it.”
Darren shuffled back into the classroom behind me.
Over the next few days, with plenty of prodding and encouragement, he got to work. By the end of the week, Darren was passing ALL –yes ALL — of his classes.
He’d needed us to insist. He’d needed some resources. He’d needed an intervention. He’d needed a village.
Countless Darrens are trying to sleep in classrooms across the country, and they need us. They need us to believe with and for them that it’s not too late. We need to show them with our time, with our money, and with our whole bodies.
Why? Because they’ve seen all kinds of evidence that it’s not going to work out. That there is, in fact, no use.
If I’ve learned anything in my years of teaching, in my years of living, in my years of falling flat on my face, it’s that no one is beyond the point of no return. Restoration is always a possibility, but when we find ourselves deep in a pit, we often need some assistance before we can take the first few steps.
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to act.Proverbs 3:27
With thanks to all who have prayed for, encouraged, supported, and helped me take my first few steps.
*As always, I have changed the name of this particular student.