Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Big Pay-off

Last week, three of my students made me cry.
The first was Matthew, one of my freshmen. We do silent reading at the beginning of every class period. Studies show that if a student reads for pleasure, he is far more likely to improve his writing skills; seeing the structure of the language on the page over and over does far more to ingrain grammar than any lesson I could ever come up with. So we read for twelve minutes—a period of sheer bliss for the young bibliophiles. Absolute torture for the non-readers. Matthew was a member of the latter group, so I called his mom for some advice.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Ms. Murphy,” she sighed. “Matthew has never liked to read. Teachers have been telling us this for years.” She agreed to take him to a bookstore over the weekend to try to find something he might like.

On Monday he showed up with one of S.E. Hinton’s books, Rumblefish. Hinton began writing as a young girl in high school. She’s the author of The Outsiders. Her novels are short and gritty, starring teen punks who get in trouble but overall have good hearts. Matthew told me he’d started Rumblefish over the weekend and it was “OK.” Whew. At least he’d be reading now instead of fidgeting at his desk for twelve minutes.

A day or so later, the kids were working on a written assignment in class, and I was walking around helping them. I noticed Matthew wasn’t writing. He was reading.

“Matthew, are you finished?” I checked his work. Yep, done, and done well.

“I’m on the last chapter,” he said, barely looking up.

A few minutes later, I gave the stragglers a five-minute warning.

“The bell’s gonna ring in five minutes, guys, let’s get this thing finished.”

“Nooooo!” Matthew cried, looking up at the clock. “Ms. Murphy, can I just stay in your class next period? I want to finish this book!”

If you could have seen the look on his face, if you understand how a book can transport a reader to another place and time, so much so that he becomes unaware of the place he’s in…. Well, you would have gotten teary-eyed, too.

The next day a former student stopped by to visit. I didn’t think I’d ever see Miguel after graduation. He hated my class, hated me for awhile. He was tardy often, truant occasionally, and would never read during the silent reading period. He was tall, surly and absolutely belligerent every time I spoke with him. When I called home, I discovered he was living in foster care… because he’d been abused by his parents. His only reason for showing up to school was to appease his probation officer. I decided at that point that I would simply treat him with kindness every day from that day forward, regardless of how he performed in my class.

Some time later a student finished A Child Called It and told me I could keep it for my classroom library. This book isn’t literary, to say the least; it’s a stark memoir about a boy who was abused as a child. On yet another day when Miguel showed up without a book, I placed it on his desk. He picked it up. I watched him read the front, then the back, then slowly open it. At the end of that school year, he told me he was still reading it. I told him he could have the book. He was incredulous.

“Just have it?” he asked.

“Sure,” I told him. “Enjoy it!” He made a noise and I realized how stupid that sounded. How does one “enjoy” a book about suffering, especially when it hits so close to the bone?
When Miguel showed up this week, I hadn’t seen him in four years, not since that last day of school when he was a sophomore. He walked into my class after school accompanied by a heavily tattooed young woman. Another student was in the room, taking a test. After I greeted him and he uttered some grunting noise, Miguel walked around, looking at the room, commenting sparsely on how it looked the same. Finally, he approached my desk.

“I still have your book,” he said quietly. “I read it.”

I nodded. “And what are you doing these days?”

“I’m working,” he said, smiling.

“Like a grown-up?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied, chuckling, “like a grown-up. Anyways, I just wanted to say hello.”

“Stop in any time,” I told him. He and the girl meandered out.

I doubt that I’ll see Miguel again. But I understood his tacit message, and that’s what brought the tears I had to disguise quickly so my test-taking student wouldn’t be alarmed.

And the next day John stopped by. This goofy, tow-headed boy had been a freshman in my class four years before. I’d called his mom repeatedly that year because John just couldn’t keep from getting into mischief. I usually characterize freshmen as puppies—mostly squirmy, exuberant creatures with very short attention spans. John was more of a young raccoon because he had the masked, ninja factor—always sneaking around and up to no good, though not in a malicious way. I loved his Tom Sawyer approach to life, and he had the freckled, honest face to go along with the character. Now he towered over me, a grown man.

“John!” I exclaimed as I hugged him. “What are you up to?!?”

“I just finished boot camp,” he said quietly.

After graduation in June, he’d joined the army. In some months, after completing his training, he’ll be going either to Afghanistan or Korea. We talked for a few minutes about boot camp, how he’d questioned his decision during the first two weeks, then been proud of himself by the end of it all.

“I lost thirty-five pounds,” he said, grinning.

“I’m proud of you, too,” I told him.

He was on campus to pick up his younger sister, and he had to leave. My “Take care of yourself” as he departed seem wholly inadequate. The tears came a few minutes later, as I tried to resume grading papers. He will make us all proud, I know, and I hope and pray that, in a few years, he’ll stop by again to say hello.


  1. oh my, with all the waste around us today, these four characters are a blessing. One of the characters saved the lives of three of the others. This is a test "Teach"..lol.. which is which. yep, you get a 100.

  2. Glenn, you always know just the right thing to say! Thank you!!