Wednesday, January 1, 2014

To Be Seen (A Christmas mini-miracle from our classroom)

I want to start this post by saying that in my profession, I am often humbled by the simple truth that despite all my planning and efforts and knowledge of pedagogy and standards, my students continue to teach me things I probably should have learned long before now. In fairness to my own teachers and influences perhaps I did learn these lessons when I was young, in fact I’m sure that I did, but I am continually humbled by how deeply rooted these truths become when I see them played out in the lives of these children I am trying to pour into each day.

The latest lesson was one that I walk around feeling like I have a pretty good grip on, but still, was renewed in me in a new way this holiday season. I work at a private, residential school for children in social and economic need (that’s a mouthful isn’t it?) Perspective: The students I serve, live away from home in a group living situation. I can not generalize their home situations, as they are as diverse as the students themselves. Poverty is the common thread, hope and tools for a brighter future is the common goal. (

In early years, I bought each of my students a Christmas present. I would wrap them up and present them on the last day before break, wishing I could give more, hoping that they felt the love and care in each gift. A few years ago, I started doing things a little differently. I still buy one present for each student, but I line the wall with the unwrapped gifts for all to see. Then each student chooses one name from a hat and keeps it secret. They choose a gift that they think their secret student will most appreciate. They wrap the gift, and place it under the tree. Then they write (because this is school, and we do have writing standards to meet) an essay about their student. The content guidelines are to write why the student is a “gift to us” (as a classroom community) and to give specific examples. I sit them down and talk about how important it is to see and be seen. I encourage them to really see the best in each other and find a way to capture that in their tribute. Every year, this is a most moving time of kind words and affirmation and watching students glow from the inside out. Every year I tear up and feel overwhelmed with gratitude and Christmas spirit, every year’s group surprises and enchants me in some way. This year though, I was a little nervous.

You see, the group I have this year has provided me with some new challenges in forming a classroom community. They haven’t gotten along as well as in other years, and there are a few students who just struggle to get along with anyone. Of course, we are always working on this, and each student has come a tremendous way, but still, I was admittedly trepidatious at our “name reaping” (hunger games reference!) ceremony. There was one student in particular who I feared, would have a hard time with this whole process. He wants the rest of us to believe that he is a “tough guy” who doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him, who doesn’t want to be “friends” with the other kids, who is happiest being feared by the others instead of liked by them, he is vocal about this. He is vocal about a lot of things ;)

When he put his hand in the jar and pulled out the name of the one boy in the class who he considers a friend, I was relieved. At least, I thought, he’ll WRITE a nice tribute. When the girl who chose HIS name looked at her paper, and then at me with fear, I tried to seem reassuring. “You’ll do a great job, I’m sure of it!” I said to her. She didn’t look convinced. I’m not sure I was convinced. I knew she was a kind-hearted student and would be able to write a generic essay. I spent most of my time working with him during the writing time, keeping him focussed, convincing him that “he is a gift to us because he gets in trouble to make us laugh” is not an appropriate tribute. I checked in on her once, but she said she was doing fine. And then the day arrived to share tributes. The students come up with their gift and stand on a chair, the recipient comes up front and stands in front of the reader, and listens with the class as their tribute is read in front of everyone. Then, they get to open their present. My students did an amazing job with their writings this year, every student glowed and blushed as their tribute was read. I love seeing them shift a little on their feet, and try to control their smiles…I can not do the sight justice in words here. I won’t even continue to try.

After a few tributes were read, the student, the boy I was worried about, had enough of hearing all the “gushy stuff” he asked to go to the bathroom and then I spotted him sitting at a table in the hallway when he came back. I went to ask him to come in, but he refused. “I don’t want to hear all that, I want to leave this dumb school” was his explanation. I was frustrated and even a little irritated but I allowed him to work in the hall rather than to disrupt the magic going on in the classroom. Finally, it was his turn. The girl who had written his tribute was ready to read, she seemed excited to take her turn and so I convinced him to come inside and listen. He came up front with his arm across his face. He refused to stand on the platform, he twisted around and shuffled his feet in silent protest. It was for HER sake that I didn’t just send him out, something about her countenance caused me to abide his disrespectful behavior. She began to read. The room was quiet, and as she read he slowly stopped shuffling and just stood there, I wish I could post her essay, but they give it to each other as part of their gift. I wish I had thought to photocopy it first. Here is my best summary-

******* is a gift to us for many reasons. One reason that he is a gift to us is that he is really kind. He doesn’t want us to think so, but sometimes when no one is looking I see him help ***** pick up his books or hold the door open for Mrs. Halliday. He is also a gift to us because he tries to be good. Even after he has had a terrible day or said some mean things, he always comes in the next day trying really hard. He says he’s sorry in letters and you know he means it even if he doesn’t want to say it out loud. Sometimes after a bad day, he will have 4 good days in a row because he is trying so hard to make up for the things he said but didn’t really mean…and on and on.

I couldn’t have written the essay better myself. It was a balanced, truthful account of a lovable boy who tries and fails and tries again. My face was wet with pride and humility, I wanted to grab and hug her, I wanted to grab and hug him, I hoped he wouldn’t just snatch his gift and sit down, and then he peeked his face up and with tears streaming down it he looked at her, said “thank you”, opened his gift, hid his face in it, and hurried to his seat to bury his face farther.

The girl came up to me and I got to give her my hug and tell her how proud I was of her. When the rest of the tributes were finished, I went to the boy with his face buried in his present. After a few minutes of my sitting beside him, he looked up, his face still a river of tears. I’ve learned to only ask yes, or no questions when he is upset, and so I asked him. “Are you crying because you are sad?” he shook his head no. “Are you crying because you are happy?” He nodded his head yes and put it down again. I squeezed his shoulder. “I thought ******* did a really great job writing that essay about you.” I said. He nodded his head yes again. “We’re all glad you’re here, and I hope you don’t still want to leave this school” I said. He shook his head no, and then said something I couldn’t hear. I asked him to say it again and he lifted his head and said,

“they really see me…” and started to sob.

At the end of the day, he slipped a letter in my hand on his way out the door. It reads:

Dear Mrs. H,

thank you for taking time away from your family to buy us all gifts to give each other. I know you don’t have to do that and we don’t deserve it most of the time. I’m sorry for all the times I am bad. I will try harder. Merry Christmas! The party was fun after all.

I see you.


To be seen for who we really are beneath who it is we pretend to be, is a powerful and beautiful thing. To be affirmed for who we really are is a sustenance that nourishes like nothing else can. To be loved even when we are at our darkest and are pushing that love away, is a gift that brings Christmas to life and sets our hearts aglow.

See and be seen. Love and be loved. Forgive and be forgiven. Learn from those you teach.

Follow our class on Twitter: @MrsHallidays4th

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