In 1998 I stumbled into a part time job teaching art ed at a charter school in Micanopy, Florida. I taught kindergarten, first and second grade students to use their imaginations while painting, drawing, and making rudimentary prints and collages. I don’t remember many of the lessons that I taught, but I do recall the many times my kids surprised me. What I learned was that each one of them was very aware and thoughtful, that they were busy soaking in impressions and information from the environment around them, and that they understood much more about their lives than I would have expected.
Ronny was undersized for a kindergartner. The staff wondered whether his mother had lied about his age when she enrolled him in school. He had the cherubic face of an innocent young child but showed a precocious curiosity about the opposite sex. When a girl got permission to go to the bathroom I had to keep an eye on him. If I didn’t he would follow them into the restroom in hopes, perhaps, of seeing something unusual. He also liked to defy me in little ways to test my reaction. If I told everyone to get up off the carpet and find a seat at a table he would put his hands on his hips and give me a challenging look. If he refused to comply I simply picked him up, tucked him under one arm, and hauled him to a chair. He didn’t mind. I got the impression that he liked the attention.
James did damage. He would watch me carefully, and the moment I was distracted he would drift off to the side and break a piece of equipment or hurt another boy. When I located him again he would be slowly walking away from a collapsed painting rack or a boy who was doubled over in pain. One day we had a fire drill, and he intentionally lagged behind everyone. I put a two fingers on his shoulder and gave him a gentle push forward. He flopped on the ground, pointed at me and cried out in fake pain. None of the other teachers bought his act, and no one accused me of hitting him. One of the aides had noted his penchant for trickery and sadism and predicted a future in crime for the him. One day his father came in for a visit, and all the teachers cringed. We were used to having parents blame us for the bad behavior of their children. (One mother had even defended her little boy after he attempted to bite a teacher.) James’ Dad told us that his son was reacting badly to his parents’ recent divorce, and that he was aware that his son was acting up at school. He apologized for James and promised to take him in hand. He was as good as his word, and James calmed down considerably and began to make good progress. He gradually became a much more motivated kid who no longer attempted to make the rest of the world as miserable as he was.
Shandra transferred to Micanopy about half way through the year. We heard that the school she had formerly attended had been rough, and that her parents wanted to give her a better chance of getting a good education by moving her to Micanopy. The first day I had her in class she stirred up a minor ruckus. Jim came up to me and showed me a cut on his palm. He said that Shandra had stabbed him with a pair of blunt scissors. I asked her if she had done that, and she said, “He ain’t hurt. He ain’t bleeding.” I told her that she couldn’t stab other students or hurt them in any way. She stuck out her lip and glared at me. I told her that everyone in class had a pair of scissors, and that she didn’t have fight to get her share of supplies. Her shoulders dropped and her expression changed. She learned eventually that the art room was a safe place and began to enjoy the class. She became very frank and open with me as the year went on, and once explained to me why she had an urgent need to use the bathroom. She said, “My butt itches and I have to scratch it.” I stood aside and waved my arm toward the bathroom door in silent acknowledgment that having an itchy butt was a very good restroom excuse. I reminded her to wash her hands before she came back.
Mary’s social life was a concern of mine. She walked up to me one morning and demanded that I take action as her advocate. Rachel had promised to sit next to her while they painted, and now she was sitting by Charlotte instead. Mary insisted that it was my job to make Rachel sit beside her and didn’t accept my explanation that mandated seating arrangements weren’t in my lesson plan. According to her the world had to be fair and true, and everyone had to honor prior agreements. And she was determined and sure that it was my solemn duty to make it so.
Abdul would look up at me with adoration at random moments, would throw his arms around my hips and give me a big hug. I couldn’t figure out what came over him as I had not done anything extraordinary to earn that much affection. But I would give him a pat on the head and wait for him to release me. He seemed to become overwhelmed at times by a wave of love that needed immediate expression.
Some of the kids felt that my marriage vows were not that important. One boy in first grade gave me his mother’s phone number when he came by my table at a school festival. He said, “You really should call this number,” as Mom stood a few feet behind him and blushed. She seemed oddly willing to entertain the possibility of a relationship of some sort, and I hemmed and hawed until I managed to thank him for the number and to say that I would take his advice into account. The children called me Mr. Dennis or Mr. D., and another teacher named Derry was called Mrs. D. She was divorced, and we were on friendly but professional terms. One day a group of children began to point at Mr. and Mrs. D as we did our playground duty, and they suggested that the two of us make the obvious move of getting married. Then we would become a unit: Mr. and Mrs. D. I was embarrassed once again, but Derry gave me a strange look that definitely was not an outright dismissal of the idea. Who knew that tentative opportunities for infidelity could be brokered by little kids?
A first grade girl named Sharon sat down at my table at the same festival where I had been given a mother’s phone number. We weren’t in class and felt relaxed with each others’ company, and she began to tell me about her life. Her mother was a single mom who worked at a local motel out by Interstate 95. She worked double shifts some days as a maid and was often away from home. Sharon told me that she couldn’t stay long at the festival because of her Mom’s schedule, and that she was lonely. She looked down at the ground. Her speech was simple and direct, and it eloquently told me that she was a very sad little girl who was looking for more love and attention. She had appeared to me before that to be a dull, callous child. But I learned during our five minute conversation that she was a sensitive person who saw her world without any illusions: life was hard and showed no signs of getting better. She accepted this with philosophical detachment, but seemed relieved that she could tell someone how she felt.
I decided after my year at Micanopy to give up my ambition of becoming an elementary school teacher. I realized that I was much better suited for dealing with adults, and that the strain of learning how to react calmly to the irrational and unpredictable behavior of little kids was a bit too much for me. But I knew that my year’s glimpse of teaching them had been a gift, and that each child I met was precious and had the potential to do wonderful things with his or her life.