Now and then, one of my fourth graders holds out his arms for a hug. I have a third grader who rests her head against my arm when I lean over the desk to help with classwork. Those of you who know me well are probably chuckling. I’m not all that cuddly. I don’t bite or anything, I’m just stiff.
When a girl is crying in the bathroom, male teachers find the nearest lady and say “go talk to her.” It’s universal. They all do it.
I try. I go in and assess the situation. I watch her cry for a while, arms around her knees in a dark corner, or I listen to her sobs echoing off the porcelain in a locked bathroom stall. I try “what’s up?” and “can you tell me what happened?” but then, inevitably, I blurt out something like “can I get you a glass of water?” I’m terrible at this stuff.
That’s middle school, and I’ve accepted my awkwardness there. Now, though, for the first time since I became a teacher, I’m working with elementary students. They cry a lot.They get knocked down in gym and they cry. Their dads make them wear their snowpants so they cry. They get assigned seating and they cry. They get caught lying and they cry. I dole out hugs and band aids now. Once, I picked up a cool rock from outside for a girl to press against the hurt spot on her face. She looked so silly, holding that big rock to her eye, and she carried it with her for hours.
Working with younger students is a mystifying cocktail of sweetness and ickiness and fun and unsolicited intimacy. They talk about the hard things at home. They pick their noses. They hug. They spill. They sing along with stupid videos. They like to shout the answers. They have pockets full of little toys. They are sticky. They forgive quickly, and I’m grateful because this is a steep learning curve for me. I don’t know how much is too much to expect, so I expect too much. I don’t know how to fix bumps and scrapes and tears so I ignore them. I don’t know how to decide who gets to sit on the couch so I do the mean thing and say “nobody!” In spite of my growling and snapping and my ignorance and helplessness in the face of tears, they bounce in smiling every day. I’m baffled and delighted by their enthusiasm and their trust.
We have such a long way to go together this year. My elementary class (grades 3 through 7) started the year resistant to writing more than a few sentences. Now they look forward to the days when I post a painting on the smartboard and let them write about it. They love to write stories, but not a single one of them can use punctuation at all, and one of them still misspells his own name sometimes.
I want to teach them to write. For starters, I want them to write understandably. Later, I want them to write expressively. How can I teach them what a sentence is, though? Punctuation feels as natural to me as blinking. How can I teach them to spell? I don’t remember the right things to say, how the ‘e’ makes the ‘a’ say its name, how you need to change the ‘y’ to ‘i’ and add ‘es’. How can I teach the one kid to spell his name while I prepare the older girl to take her classes with the high school next year? I have no idea how to do this. It feels like I’m starting from scratch with these kids, and on the one hand, I’m thrilled to have the chance. On the other hand, I’m desperately intimidated. They’re so vulnerable, and I’m not that cuddly.
It’s October, and things are in full swing at school. We’re short-staffed and holding it together by sheer willpower. This time of year is always like that.
I missed my best friend’s 30th birthday party this weekend, and talk among college friends of a New England New Years has me a little homesick. When I have free time, I miss the company of these beloved people with whom I have so much in common.
I have learned to say “it’s snowing!” in Gwich’in, (ah-shee) though no significant snow (zaa) has stuck yet.
The kids in Arctic Village are sweet – maybe a little too sweet – it makes me wonder when the other shoe will drop. I have a really eccentric third grader who makes me laugh every single day.
I do miss the kids I taught in Venetie. They were like family, and they had a great deal of personality. I got to see them for a few hours when I was on my way into Fairbanks for a dental emergency a few weeks back, and they’ve grown taller and stronger and so much more mature since I left them in May.
In Social Studies, the high school has been doing CNN Student News every day, as usual, and practicing for the National Geographic Bee. The upper elementary class has been learning countries like crazy, making giant leaps from the beginning of school when they didn’t know their continents and oceans yet. I’m surprised at how much I find myself enjoying the younger group. They are so earnest and fun-loving, I can’t keep myself from playing a little every time they’re in the room.
In English, we’re focusing heavily on writing. I’m allowing the kids to turn in as many drafts as they want to, and they’re keeping me hopping with their constant requests for feedback. I have a separate reading class where they practice reading aloud, discussing, and analyzing their novels in written responses. The whole thing is going well. I’m trying to keep a writing sample from each student so that I can see their growth between now and the end of the year. I hope they grow. I think they will.
Weekends, though, are the best. Nothing can compare to spending days out beyond the edges of the village, picking a way through the tussocks and noting the fresh prints of wolves, spending nights under the aurora listening to the fire wheeze and the lake ice ripple and buckle.
Someday, I’d like to spend more time out there at this time of year. I want to note how thick the ice gets before the muskrats stop plowing through it. I want to listen to the ice and learn to tell time by its shifting. Two-day-weekends are just not adequate (see me using today’s vocabulary word?).