Monday, August 30, 2010

I Like Your Bracelet

During my first year teaching at AACS, I found that the coach’s office attached to the women’s locker room was unused. So, I begged for a key and during my planning periods, I hid there to grade all the many papers students had written for me. The locker rooms were on either side of a little hallway that led to the gym, boys on one side, girls on the other with the coaches’ offices also opposite. 

Sometimes my planning period coincided with lunch and a group of students ate lunch sitting on the floor of this hallway (at the time, the school had no cafeteria) and though my door was closed, it was easy to hear students talking and playing and having fun.

One of the endearing features of AACS is that the students create cross-grade friendships so it was not uncommon to see kids from all four classes eating together. Maybe they got to know each other through marching band or soccer, but together they were, boys and girls from various grades.

The group who ate there that year was particularly spirited, physical and loud. I taught eleventh and twelfth graders and a few of my students were present so that day when I opened my door, stacks of papers in my arms, those who knew me sung out, “Hi, Mrs. Nebbia!”

I stopped in my tracks. On the floor lay a gorgeous girl. She had cascades of warm brown hair, perfect skin, lively brown eyes and a bright laughing spirit. Her name is Erin. I noticed Lizi, the girl who was always with Erin—a beautiful blond athlete with a sparkle in her wide blue eyes. Gathered around these friends were several other girls and they seemed to be expecting something to happened. And it did. A boy (an upper classman and one of my students) stepped up onto Erin’s stomach.

I screamed.
I didn’t realize she was trying to show how strong her stomach muscles were or something like that, so I screamed, “Get off her!” etc. etc. (I can go on when I think someone’s being hurt).

The girls argued with me! (I guess I was spoiling the fun). And when I tried to explain that she might have been injured, they looked at me as if I were daft. As I walked off (in a huff) to my other responsibilities, I knew in my heart that I would NEVER be able to teach either one of those girls.

Next August, I walked to the front of my classroom and there she was, the girl with the perfect hair and the iron stomach muscles. Next to her sat her spunky friend. Their books were on their desks, neat and ready to be opened (it was the first day), they tipped their faces up and their eyes were hopeful and nervous.

The oddest thing happened to me. I understood that their happiness and success that year in English depended on my winning their confidence.  I had sworn I’d never be able to connect with these two—these two pranksters—these two lively, hopeful girls. But as I stood before them, I honestly could not figure out why I had ever objected to them. So what if they were wild and careless and said what came into their heads? Right then a big, honest love for them dropped in my heart and as sometimes happens to me—a few words came to me and I knew what to say. I smiled at them both and said to the girl with the spectacular hair,
“I like your bracelet.”
Erin looked back at me with the warmest smile—a relieved, grateful smile. Her friend—loyal, loving soul that I’ve come to know her to be, beamed with happiness at me.

That’s the magic of teaching. There’s a creative tension between teacher and student that makes the teacher able to understand the student and gives the teacher a inspired ability to see the student’s value and potential. And suddenly we got along. I loved seeing them and they were as friendly and enthusiastic as students can be.

Later Erin told me that when I noticed her bracelet, I won her heart.

And she mine. Because of this, I learned so much from Erin and Lizi. I learned to hope and to reach out and to look for all riches that the imperfect student stores within his or her hopeful heart.

Not to say that there weren’t conflicts that year. There were conflicts because with “honest, genuine love” comes the occasional need to speak the truth. But both girls’ inner beauty and life-giving potential seemed so real and valuable to me, there were times when I just had to speak to them about this or that. I'm sure I did not always handle things perfectly. I'm sure that I could/should have done more, said less... but we worked together imperfect people though we were.

When either girl was not working up to her considerable potential, we had some discussion back and forth about this. And so when Lizi submitted her paper on The Crucible and I saw how her love for others and her sense of loyalty gave her a compassionate insight into these fictional characters, my heart leapt.  No, her paper wasn’t perfect and it may have been a wee bit late, but it showed her unique intellect and I thought it was beautiful. I thought it was wonderful! I still have a copy.

Recently I saw these two friends at a good-bye dinner for other people we all know and love. Now they’ve graduated from college, have pursued careers that use those amazing God-given gifts. They are both married and have beautiful, sparkling young children. They are still the dearest of friends, are vibrant members of their communities, strong in their thoughtful convictions. We were standing together in a little huddle during the ceremony whispering together. Lizi reminded me of the way I was honest with her in high school. There was a great deal at stake, I thought, looking at her now in the strength of her beautiful young adulthood. I was right about both of them having so much to give to the world.

That’s when Erin said,

“Mrs.Nebbia, I like your bracelet.”

I don’t know if she remembered that these words had been said before, that they were the incantation that sparked these friendships. But it didn’t matter; it was too late. These two friends had won my heart years ago and I plan to be devoted to them as time goes on.