*As usual, all names have been changed to preserve identities and schools.
I must be doing something right.
At one high school I frequent as a sub, there is the kid named Timothy, who one day last fall asked me for fifty-cents to get a cup of hot cocoa at a school club fundraising event. I gave it to him, and the rest of that day as well as other subsequent visits, he was always well behaved and respectful.
Back at his school a few months later, I was there on the day of another hot cocoa fund raiser. I asked Tim is he was going to get one, remembering how he seemed to really enjoy the one he asked for change to buy. “Na, I ain’t got any money today, Mr. Lucker”. I dug out two quarters. “Here – go get one during lunch”. “Wow” was his dumfounded response. “Thanks, Mr. Lucker”.
I have been to his school multiple times since. He has never again asked me for anything, he always behaves in my classroom, always greets me cheerfully, and with respect. He still doesn’t do any work, but I think for the sum total of one-dollar and a few minutes time, I’ve given him…something.
I know this because another teacher I was speaking with one day saw Timothy pass by and say “Hey, Mr. Lucker”. The teacher looked surprised. “Wow, that’s really something. I was talking to him once and he mentioned you. He respects you. He’s a nice kid, but he really doesn’t trust many people. It’s interesting that he is okay with you – especially you being a sub”.
Maybe that’s the key – being a sub and only there once in a while. It might be a different story if I was there day in, day out. Or not. Who knows? You take the little victories where you get ‘em.
Tatiana is a student at a charter school I have made numerous appearances at. She is like a lot of the young women I deal with regularly; bright, inquisitive, puts the pieces together in her mind better than most, but cannot seem to get it together enough to actually do any of the work. She is one of those choice-steak students; her work is rare – but well done when she actually does it. She has the same incredulity every time I come to her school: “Mr. Lucker…WHY do you keep coming back here”? !
Her exasperation simply confirms a theory a teacher at another school has given me about why some students react to me the way they do. This woman is fiftyish, a veteran of many years in the classroom. She thinks that kids have such a visceral reaction to me (positively or negatively) simply because I do, indeed, keep coming back. She said “You have to remember, most of these kids have all sorts of people in their lives – mostly fathers –who leave, then don’t ever come back. The fact that you show up, leave, then come back says something to these kids. They don’t know that, or couldn’t explain it, but that’s why I think you get them so riled up every time you come back.”
“By the way” she added with a smile “that’s all good, Mr. Lucker”.
Oh – and Tatiana, while never completing a lick of work for me, and expressing constant bewilderment at my presence, always engages me in some sort of off-the-wall, but well thought out conversation about something in her life. She is loking for answers, I think. Or she is simply trying to distract me and waste time.
We’ll go with the former over the latter.
A teacher that I worked with all of last year said much the same things after I had been transferred from the eighth grade into the fifth just a month into the school year. The fifth graders had gone through four subs as English teachers at that point. As warm-body-number-five, they made no bones about the fact they doubted I would be there very long, both in their words and their actions. It was no surprise to my colleague Karen that the kids would feel that way, but even she was impressed when I relayed some of their blunt comments when I talked about getting fifth grade on track, as I would be there for the rest of the year:
“Yeah, right. I don’t believe that. You’ll be gone in a week”. (This was originally stated on my first day in homeroom class by one of the boys, subsequently reiterated numerous times by others).
“Uh-uh. Sure you will. Riiiiiiight”. (One of the girls in my homeroom class said that as her mantra the first two weeks I was in the room).
The list goes on. Karen was not surprised that they were so blunt about it, but that they could actually verbalize it – TO ME. She predicted that once the light bulb came on and they realized that I was sticking around, they would really take to me. “I figure that anyway, but with them actually saying it the way they are, they will be real good for you after a while”.
Later in the year, after the new administration had returned me to the eighth grade (a story that has its own, bulging accordion file in the ‘stupid’ cabinet) I encountered the fifth graders out in the yard. Many of them came rushing to greet me, and gave me hugs and high fives. One of them blurted out, “Mr. Lucker, they was wrong for taking you out. We know you didn’t want to go”. This was greeted by a chorus of ‘yeah’, ‘that’s right’ and, my personal favorite, “Yeah – F*** them! Come back to our building”! which, of course really got them “yeah-ing” and repeating the statement in agreement.
Karen had heard about the encounter and said simply, “See? What did I tell you about those fifth graders? They know you’re still around. Even the ones that don’t like you are good with that. They know you didn’t want to leave”.
It’s a theme reiterated by others.
This week I was at a high school I had not been back to since around Christmas time, so I was surprised when a couple of girls hollered “Hey Mr. Lucker” and waved at me as soon as I walked into the building. On Friday, my third day there this week, we had a hodge-podge group of kids from various classes, congregating in a classroom waiting to go to an assembly, and some of the kids were getting a little rambunctious. The teacher in charge suggested to one young woman that she move away from the other girls she was sitting with and directed her to an open seat in the back of the room. The girl said, “Can I just go sit by Mr. Lucker instead? I won’t get in trouble sitting by him. He won’t let me”. The teacher looked a bit surprised, but she glanced at me and said “Sure – if that’s okay with Mr. Lucker”. I just said “Fine by me”.
Lucinda came over, sat down next to me, said “Hey, Mr. Lucker”! and just sat there; no conversation, no issues. She just smiled at me and sat down.
What was interesting is that I had not had this young woman in my classroom all week; my only encounters with her were saying “hi” in the hallway.
As one of my colleagues at a high school I have been at over a dozen times this year has come to say with a laugh every time I return, “Welcome back. Always love how they complain about you when you’re here, then complain about you when you leave. Don’t know what it is you’re doing, but keep it up”!
As I have told a number of kids throughout the year who question my repeated presence in their classrooms, “Just think of me like having a bad taco at lunch; I just keep coming back up on ya’…”
Driving home from school the other day, the oldies station I listen played the theme song from “Welcome Back, Kotter’. I always liked the show and the song, but after thirty years, I heard it this time with different ears – especially the chorus:
“Who’d have thought they’d lead ya (Who’d have thought they’d lead ya)
Back here where we need ya (Here where we need ya)
Yeah we tease him a lot cause we’ve got him on the spot, welcome back.
Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back….”
When we began this becoming-a-teacher-at-midlife adventure, a friend of mine joked about the end result being ‘just like the movie ‘To Sir, With Love’. So far (as I like to tell the high schoolers when they make an outrageous request) “Uhhhhh, no. Aiiiiint happenin’”. But after nearly a year of substituting and interacting with a few THOUSAND New Orleans high school students, I have more of a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in some regards than I did after my first chaotic year of teaching in a singular school.
I have also come to clearly confirm that high school is my teaching niche.
It helps that school staff and administrators keep wanting and asking me back and I’m beginning to feel that even a few students have come around to that way of thinking, so maybe…just maybe…I’m doing something right here.
Now if I can just parlay this into a permanent gig for next year.
“Yeah we tease him a lot cause we’ve got him on the spot, welcome back. Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back
Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back….”