Here’s part III of a story I’ve been working on from my first year of teaching. (I’m trying to work on longer stuff by breaking it into parts each Sunday, and yes, I know it’s Thursday…) If you missed the first two parts of the story, and you’re wondering “Who’s Kwasi? What class party?” and “Why does this teacher suck so much?” you can go back and read part 1 here and part 2 here. You’ll probably understand today’s part without it, but, really, reading the first parts will be worth it, for context… Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
In this gray classroom on the second floor in the South Bronx, there were always many layers of truths for the first-year teacher to uncover. Many of them she didn’t discover until years after realizing them was useful anymore. One thing the first-year teacher was beginning to realize on this particular day was that being the teacher at a class party was about as much fun as getting plaque scraped off your teeth. She was simultaneously attempting to pour and distribute 28 glasses of soda, supervise two students as they passed out napkins, beg her three most rambunctious boys to stay in their seats, and tie the bow on Tinique’s costume.
The other thing she didn’t realize—at first—was that Kwasi was crying.
The first-year teacher glanced up at the clock that said the day would never be over and there it was—blessed, magic number—2:45. Time to “pack-up,” the laughably innocuous euphemism coined for what was easily the most dangerous time of day.
Teacher inexperience plus 28 cooped-up, querulous second graders (14 of them boys) stampeding all at once out the classroom door had often resulted in fist fights, and the truth was that the first-year teacher frequently arrived to the schoolyard in a daze, delivering her students in a raucous heap to their waiting families.
She turned the lights off to get the students’ attention, and that’s when she heard it—the unmistakable wailing. Pamela announced, rather redundantly, “Miss Paez, Kwasi’s crying.”
The first-year teacher instructed students to get their bookbags and line up—Quietly!—at the classroom door, and she approached Kwasi’s desk.
It would be much more accurate to say she approached the floor beneath Kwasi’s desk, as he was curled up beneath it, knees pulled into his chest, fat tears rolling down his cheeks and making splashes on the floor. This was another thing the first-year teacher had noticed about Kwasi. He was very, very good at crying (which was not surprising, considering the amount of time he spent doing it.)
“Kwasi.” The first-year teacher put one knee on the floor and peered awkwardly under the desk and over the slim silver crossbar at Kwasi.
“Kwasi!” she raised her voice to make sure he could hear her over his wailing. Her voice was not tender. “What’s wrong?”
He didn’t respond to her, his wails rising. She put her hand on his shoulder and shook it a little. “Kwasi? Kwasi. Tell me what’s wrong.” He continued sobbing and moaning.
The first year-teacher didn’t have much to go on, so, like most decisions in her short teaching career, her next attempt was pure instinct: no-nonsense distraction and denial. “Kwasi, it’s almost 3:00. We have to line up and go home now. Come on, let’s go line up and go home.”
Unsurprisingly, Kwasi was unmoved by this line of reasoning.
The first-year teacher was losing her balance now, so she sat all the way on the floor. She sighed and repeated, a little more softly this time, “What is it? What’s wrong?”
After a few moments, he finally sobbed, “M-m-m-my costume…”
The first-year teacher was momentarily confused. Kwasi wasn’t wearing a costume. “Your costume?”
“I don’t have a costume,” he wailed mournfully.
Years later, the first-year teacher would look back on this moment and wish she’d said something different. Something comforting. Something empathetic. Something less… pragmatic. But, instead, what she said was:
“Kwasi, lots of kids don’t have costumes on; you’re not the only one. And also, you made a mask, right…? Where is your mask?”
Then she saw it, partially crumpled on the floor, the dollar-store construction paper already tearing apart. The crayon whiskers were shaky, the eyeholes lopsided. As cheap and flimsy as his classmates’ costumes were, they were Edith Head masterpieces compared with these discarded shreds of paper.
Kwasi resumed his crying, less forcefully now, and the teacher was able to manage a few more placating words. Somehow, she was eventually able to coax him from under his desk, slip his coat hood over his head and deposit him, still crying softly, at the end of the ever-undulating quasi-line that was beginning its wobbly march to the schoolyard.
Yes, the first-year teacher realized from the beginning she was under-prepared for this job. In regards to the development of children she was nearly ignorant, and with her meager technical knowledge, she’d probably have difficulty teaching almost any skill to anyone. Yet, looking back years later, it seems that what the teacher most strongly lacked was not another college course in Reading Theory or The Art of Teaching Science—but rather, a simple understanding of what it was to be human.
What she didn’t know then, at 21, that she would come to figure out much later, is that no one—not young children, not a sixty year-old woman—wants to be talked out of their sadness. She didn’t understand that what a broken heart most wants is to be heard, and held. That our disappointment and sorrow doesn’t want a mask to make it better, and doesn’t care what time it is. It merely wants a hand to hold, a heart to listen, and a compassionate voice to say, Yes. This is hard and it hurts so much.