On the first day of kindergarten, there is no lack of hope and joy walking in the front door of our schools. As a career elementary teacher and then counselor in our public schools, I have spent many first days ostensibly “helping out” in Kindergarten, but I was really there to re-fill my own bucket of happiness. Sure, a few kids may fuss leaving mom or dad (often matched by moms or dads crying over leaving them), but, in whole, the mood is jubilant. Kindergartners fully expect to love school, this seemingly magical place filled with yet unseen toys and books and teachers, where they have seen their older siblings and neighbors go every day. Truly, they start out giving us the benefit of the doubt, these 5-year-old optimists.
As I pack my third and last child off to high school this school year, she enters with a distinct lack of jubilation. And it isn’t only her. We survey our high schoolers every year, and they report feeling exhausted, bored, stressed, overwhelmed during the course of their day. Ugh.
How do we lose them? I don’t know the answer. I resigned from the public schools not knowing the answer. I don’t think the answer will be found only inside the school buildings; our culture at large has a lot to answer to when we look at the stress levels our youth are reporting. Lately, though, I’ve been mulling this question over, and this memory came back to me.
When I taught first grade many years ago, my mentor teacher gave me some advice: “When you take attendance, make sure they answer you.”
I wasn’t sure why this was important, but I admired this teacher and generally did what she said. At first, it just seemed like a time-waster. Attendance that could have taken two minutes often took 20, as first graders honestly answered my “Good morning.”
“Good morning Stephen.”
“No, it’s not, Ms. Flyr.”
“OK. Why not?”
“My grandma is sick again and my mom won’t tell me why but she’s crying and my gerbil got out of her cage.” (Murmurs of concern from other kids, mostly about gerbil).
“OK, thanks for letting me know, Stephen.”
“Good morning Kitesha.”
“Awesome morning, Ms. Flyr.”
“Good morning Sarah.” Silence. “Good morning Sarah.” I hear a mumbled response from the head down on the desk and remember that she is still recovering from a cold.
And so on.
It turns out it was arguably the most important thing I did all day. Each child, for however long, was seen and heard. From there, we could move on. Maybe the other students were a little nicer to Stephen or Sarah, maybe not. I tried to be. We learned in those few minutes who among us could carry a little more, and who needed a break.
I wonder if we start to lose them when we stop listening and seeing them. When the demands of curriculum overtake the demands of community. When they figure out no one may notice the kind of day they are having. Unless they choose to make it known, and we see those kids only too well.
It’s funny and somewhat ironic to look back now and think that attendance taking may have been my pinnacle moment as an educator. But that experience has stayed with me. Sometimes even now, I stop and think about how often I don’t really see and listen to the people I am with every day, the people I care about.
I send my sleepy daughter off to school in the still dark 6 a.m. hour, and as the bus pulls away, her face turns briefly toward me. She’s leaning her head on the cool bus window, looking both tired and annoyed (probably with me for wearing my slippers in public). I turn back toward home and hope that someone sees her today. I send silent gratitude to that person and wish that they know it matters. Even if she (and she will) acts like she doesn’t care. Even if it means she learns a little less English or Biology. Even, or maybe most especially, on days when she seems like she doesn’t want to be seen at all.
Kim Flyr is a counselor and a former school counselor and teacher within the Howard County Public School System. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.