10.02.2006

TMI

Part One
in which my kids break my heart

You can't stop kids from telling you things. They have no internal filter, and my students haven't yet gotten to an age where they are afraid their words will make them sound stupid. So I hear a lot of stuff. A LOT of STUFF.

This afternoon, two of my reading students were making up work after school. When I have a conference with a student, I often hear about things happening in their personal lives. [I do not in any way elicit this information, or even hint around that I might want to hear some good gossip. I just prefer not to know; that way I cannot be implicated in anything. Safety first, y'all.] A lot of the writing assignments for the stories are along the lines of "What do YOU think ... why?" and "What would YOU do ... why?" and when I read them I get a glimpse into what my students are going through.

I don't know how this started, but one of the kids started talking about her family, and how her dad is so strict. "But he just let my sister get a cell phone!" she complained.

"Well," I said slowly, because I'm never sure how to proceed in these situations, "is your sister really responsible?"

"Ppppp," she replied. "She ain't 'sponsible. Plus my dad don't trust none of us; he says we got too much of our mom in us."

I did not know what to make of this, and I didn't know what to say that would sort of encourage her NOT to tell me anything else.

"I'm sure he doesn't feel like that--" I began, but she cut me off.

"Naw, he thinks we'll run off like my mom did. But I ain't never runnin' out on my kids."

I was flabbergasted. First, that she obviously felt abandoned by her mother--not that her feelings aren't valid; I don't know her story--and second, that she just blurted it out like that. Casually, as if it were no big deal.

"I was eight when she left," she continued. "An' I ain't seen her since. I don't wanna talk to her or nothin'. She ain't never sent me a birthday present since she left, and I don't want nothin' from her anyway. She called my house the other day and asked for me and I said, 'Nope,' and hung up the phone."

I just didn't know what to say. What CAN be said, that doesn't sound patronizing or condescending or unconvincing? I didn't want her to feel like I wasn't interested in her, but I also did not want to encourage her to give me any more dirt on her mother.

"So you live with your dad, then?" is what I went with. It seemed safe enough. Only ...

"Well, I don't care if I NEVER see my dad," my other student jumped in. He doesn't seem like the type to participate in tell-all confessionals: he's a football player, the strong silent type, who wants to be a Marine (he's already training, he told me). "He walked out on us when I was a kid."

"I'm sor--" I started to say, but he kept going.

"He tried to talk me into coming to live with him, but it was only because he doesn't want to pay child support. Ms. Flower, he owes my mom $19,000 in back child support, and he wants to act like my dad now! When he ain't been a dad to me for ten years!" He was getting riled up, I could see.

"I thought you did live with your dad," I said.

"He's really my stepdad, but I call him my dad, and I really love him. HE'S my dad," he said, and I could tell that he felt such a strong attachment to this man that I was grateful that someone had stepped in and shown him a father's love. "Me and him are gonna own a bike shop when I grow up," he said with a grin.

"That sounds like fun," I said, relieved to be on back on neutral ground.

"Yeah, he's already taught me how to fix cars and stuff," he said. "That's what I want to do; I wanna run my own garage one day."

"Well, you'll definitely always have work," I said. I try to be encouraging when kids tell me their dreams, even though non-sarcastic replies seem like a foreign language on my lips and I feel like a giant phony. (But I do MEAN it when I wish them well; sometimes it just doesn't sound like it.)

"Yup," he said, smiling now that he wasn't focused on the problems in his past.

They both moved on to their work, but I found that I couldn't move on, myself. Because WHAT IS WRONG WITH THEIR PARENTS? And how is that sense of abandonment that my students feel going to manifest itself as they get older? The bitterness in their voices was plainly evident, and there wasn't anything I could do to ease the anger that has been building for so many years. Platitudes don't work here, not that I would use them anyway, and I found that I was getting angry on their behalf, because it's not like these are bad kids; they need extra help, sure, and they're easily sidetracked, yes, but on the whole they are GOOD KIDS. Why would anyone want to leave them?

This is why I don't like to hear about their lives, because I just want to--like a parent does--wrap them up in a cocoon and soothe their hurts and keep all the bad influences out and tell them how great they are and say, "Everything's going to be all right," and not have it turn out to be a big fat lie. But I can't, and every time I hear a new story, my heart aches a little more, and my soul dies a little more, and I realize anew that people's lives AREN'T perfect, and that behind every smile, there is a hidden hurt that no one knows about except that kid ... and me.

Even though I get uncomfortable when my students give me personal information, I do find these to be some of the most valuable moments in my teaching career. They don't know it, but my students have just told me that I'm worthy of their trust, and they know they have an ally in me ... not a friend, exactly, but someone who cares enough about them to listen when they talk.

I don't really have to say much in these situations; once they start, the kids will keep going until they're talked out. I don't often try to advise them, because I don't feel like that's what they want from me. I just offer an attentive ear and a sympathetic glance and a wish for a better tomorrow.

It's the least I can do.

2 comments:

Lady S said...

We were writing about our families in my second grade Literacy Block, and one of my girls said that everyone in her family, except her dad, shared a room. I said that she meant her mom and dad shared a room and she answered that no, her mom shared with her baby sister and her dad slept in his own room.

A year later they were divorced, but at the time, no one knew anything was going on.

6 years later, I have the baby sister in my second grade Literacy Block. I can't wait to hear what is going on in that house now (4 teenagers).

Mei said...

I know that for every story I do hear, there are ten more that I don't. I know the way some of my kids have to live would horrify me.

 

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