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Things I never thought my students would teach me

I had a serious brain block when trying to write a weblog for opening the Market today. Then I stumbled upon a draft of one I never sent back last March 2020 at the start of the pandemic, when we first had to go to all-curbside service, if we wanted to stay open, and I was a nervous wreck. So I thought, it may be a little dated, but I’m not sure it’s any less timely. Kindness and family are always important, right? So here goes ????

Ok so those of you have known me these past four (now five!) years certainly noticed how reserved and shy I am about meeting new people :-). Yeah right!! It about killed me to refrain from standing and chatting with you all at your cars!! My goodness I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed your regular Tuesday friendliness until I had to be a take-out delivery girl!! Hi and bye, it’s not my style. I know, some of you are frowning and agreeing – it’s ok and I apologize even if I can’t help grinning.

I hope we can get back to normal sooner rather than later so I can meet all you new folks in a more civilized way, and catch up with the rest of you regulars who always have such good ideas and interesting stories to share… Joe with his liver diet, Chris with her pumpkin chili and mustard cravings, Melissa and her lasagna love affair… or if you’re like Leonore, Judy and Marlene, put up with my tales of our family farming misadventures, or JoAnn who helps me plan that future trip to Disney! Or maybe Tom who sternly looks at me over his glasses like my old, er, former principal when he found out I’ve never taken my kids to Brukner. Ok, I really meant it – I had gotten used to my Tuesday Market fix ;-)

And yet what’s the real dream come true for me? Staying home with my husband and children on our farm. I just couldn’t imagine myself happier if I never had to leave again.

I had this talk with another mother… Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have some extra time at home, with nowhere to be, no clock to watch, just plenty of quality time waiting for you? I’m probably more into projects than the children sometimes! How do we kill an afternoon? Let’s make playdough. Have a paint party. Raid the closets and dressup box to put on a play of beloved stories and nursery rhymes. Read Sarah Plain and Tall aloud in an afternoon. Bake, and cook, together, and taste EVERYTHING. Go on a scavenger hunt in the yard. Have a singalong while we clean the garden beds and discover new buds popping up. Take over for Darling Husband and spread manure (it’d be your dream too if you’d been used to our old tractors and then got a taste of power steering with the new one. I’m in love, and yes he’s lucky I ever let him drive).

And yet each day that I’ve pondered all the ways we can choose to spend a glorious day here at home, I’ve also been heartbroken remembering my former Dayton students who were devastated at Spring, Christmas, and Summer Breaks when they’d have to spend extended time at home, because home was not a safe, welcoming place. I’ve been a full time Mom/Wife/Farmer/Homemaker for 7 years, yet I can picture those many students as if they were in front of me all over again, begging me to take them home with me, or to let them stay at school a little longer, or just silently sitting at the desk refusing to get on the RTA. Would you want to be the person who physically forced them to go? After I’d met some of their parents, I couldn’t do it. And I hug my own children and pray for extra patience when they’re on my last nerve, picturing those children, wondering what in the world this additional time at home would be for them.

Over 13 years ago before Lee and I met, I was a second year history teacher in Dayton, at a school for at-risk middle schoolers ages 12-17. Many had been kicked out of Dayton Public and we were their alternative to juvie; less of a culture shock than it would have been had I not done my student teaching at Colonel White High School, in West Dayton. Coming from a surburbarn white collar family with four younger brothers who ate a homecooked meal every night, prayed together every day, and whose mother would make a turkey dinner on any given weekday, my experiences as a young teacher were surreal. I went through a LOT of Holy Water.

I was bit, kicked, punched, clawed – being the tallest and youngest middle school teacher among our all-female staff, I ended up breaking up more than my share of battles. I was the only thing standing between a gang who’d suddenly materialized while I rewarded my homeroom with extra playground time (the first and only time) and the boy they intended to send back to the ER. Nothing I studied at Wright State prepared me for what became everyday occurrences. I can still feel my eight little 7th graders everyone picked on who simultaneously tried to hide behind me. And I’m sure you’ve all been at some time in an unexpected situation, one you couldn’t have dreamed prior how you’d have handled it.

If that had been a “What would you do in this moment?” essay in college, I wouldn’t have pictured myself getting up in the leaders’ face with my little mass of bodies behind me, angrily saying “Hit me” and meaning it.

It was hard enough for the little boy they were after to get on the RTA every day and make it home unscathed. Or for the boy who at 13 was built stronger and bigger than most grown men I’ve met to stop crying at Spring Break and go home – school was his escape from his unimaginable home. What would he do being stuck there for a whole week? And what have the children like him done since the pandemic hit? I saw the ramifications of social services being called; in my experience, never a positive outcome for the child.

There’s no way to look presentable to your peers when you’re 14 and living in a van with your mother and two younger sisters. No one told me a teacherly duty would be to talk to her like it was normal to change clothes, do her hair, and brush her teeth at school with things I provided, to start her day with a friendly face and positive energy.

When I can’t sleep or shut off my overworking mind, I write. And as editing is not my favorite pastime, I usually just eventually stop writing when someone else in the house is up. My thought this morning as I looked at the beautiful stars was, among other things, what am I grateful for? A more pleasant work environment at the Market than I’ve ever experienced. You’re kind. You’re generous. You’re easy to work with and for. And when you comment on my own pleasantness, I think every time of my former students. I have a daily choice to be nice. I’m far from perfect but I know I need to try.

I think of the little boy who’s favorite thing to tell me anytime I corrected him was “You’re just racist!”
“And what exactly makes me a racist?”
“You’re white!” (and here’s sarcastic me trying not to laugh and say, “Hey, you’re right! Snot.”)
“So if I’m racist, how am I treating you badly?”
“Making me do this stupid work!”
“I want you to succeed in school and life. YOU are the racist.”
His eyes bugged out of his head and I thought he was about to slug me. One thing I learned in Dayton – the advantage of working in that environment was you could tell the truth and there was no one to reprimand you, and the principal was simply grateful if you kept them from bloodying each other.
“I can’t be racist! I’m black!” he shouted at me. I said, “You look at me and all you see is white. I look at you and all I see is my student. Who’s getting judged and discriminated?” His mother told me she had barely met any white women. I honestly thought, where in the heck am I, and how small is their world? Or mine?

I had a reputation for having a good rapport with the difficult students. My secret formula, looking back? 1. I learned their names quickly, and used them, not just to correct them. THAT threw them off, especially since I didn’t know there were so many “white” ways to pronounce vowels in Shanice, Tajee, Davion, etc. 2. I wasn’t intimidated, nor tried to be intimidating. 3. I was honest to them even when it was ugly. 4. I wasn’t honest with parents and case workers.

The first and only time I was honest with a Dayton parent, the father, who’d come to the school from the shop where he worked to check on his son, learned his boy, who was an old 15 year old 7th grader and built like a college linebacker, was disruptive and disrespectful in my class. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than the father punched the boy in the face hard enough to knock him into the wall and down to the floor. The boy instantly scrambled up, keeping eye contact and not making a sound til the Dad asked, “You won’t give her another problem, will you?” “No sir!” And shortly after, he dropped out, joined the gang his parents feared, and came back as the leader to attempt to assault my little homeroom boy on the playground. And he’d been one of the only students I had with a somewhat stable home, two working parents, and enough to eat. You can bet I remembered this when in later years I made the worst career move of my life and taught at Wayne in Huber, where my entitled, mouthy suburban children with no problems ruled the school because their parents and teachers allowed it. How dare I have high expectations for them, expect 18 year olds to, gasp, take weekly spelling tests in History so they could learn to spell American and Government correctly in American Government class, not change the star athlete’s failing grade so he could play, just because Coach asked me to… No surprise to me at least that I was fired. And I was happier in Dayton.

So I stretched the truth after that first Dayton experience giving honesty to a parent – the face of the child standing behind the parent or case worker would go from wide-eyed fear (one particularly nasty girl stood there and wet herself in anticipation of how I’d describe her behavior) to shock as I always found something positive to say, even when the Mom would look at me skeptically and question whether I was talking about her kid. They taught me an unforgettable lesson – you just don’t know how a trivial gesture or smile or comment from you can affect a person’s outlook, day, attitude, etc.

After a while you’d think I’d learn to stop asking questions, but I’m pretty dense. I questioned one exceptionally quiet, brooding girl – “Why do you just stare at me and never say anything? I hear you talk to the other teachers?”
“I don’t know what to do with you.”
I’d heard a lot from my students but that was a new one. “Excuse me?”
“I think you’re fake.”
“What! Why?!”
“No one actually cares that much.”
“I do.”
After a long moment of staring she said, “I know. And I still don’t know what to do with you.”
“Well Honey, no one else does either, so join the club.”
“Miss Pierce, C’mon! You know we don’t go to the same clubs, Whitey.” And she tried to keep a straight face before we both burst out laughing.

That little girl taught me not everyone has had many or any people be kind to them in their life, but every opportunity I had, I wanted to be just that. Kind, because I now knew it was more powerful than I had realized.

I don’t have any answers. I don’t feel like I know anything. My nerves are shot after just being inundated with more Market orders than I ever dreamed of, and a new untested system for pickup that could have been a disaster. Yet because this little local scene attracts the very best people I’ve ever had the privilege to meet, everything worked out beautifully. Until I drove home imagining those faces that haunt me.

Maybe the only answer I’ve found is just to be nice when I don’t want to make the effort. I tell myself that cranky guy SHOULD be a grump because I talk too much, am obnoxious, and often forget his eggs or porkchops. The cold, sullen lady doesn’t like me because I look like her mother, who sold the Christmas presents she got at school from her young, naïve homeroom teacher for drug money. What if everyone who I come in contact with is hard to deal with because they grew up with the kind of home life of some of my favorite students? They have every reason to be difficult. And I have every reason to be kind, to everyone, because you just never know, do you?