I got this really cool gift the other day. It was from one of my third graders. I arrived at school early. I’m generally the first one in my building. Now it is dark when I arrive from my commute. I switch on the lights. Feed the hamster, the fish, and whatever other animals happen to be visiting the classroom. We recently hatched out these little prehistoric animals called triops.
I look at the lesson plans for the day, shift around things we haven’t gotten around to from days before. Write the morning stuff on the board. Run any papers that have to be run for the day. I like that time a lot. Its quiet. I'm in my space. There is a sense of anticipation every day.
I was out of the room for a while, chatting with another teacher. When I got back, there were several children sitting outside the door reading, waiting patiently for me to arrive so they could settle in.
When I got to my table, there was a fancy little box on my lesson clipboard. Hmmm… I picked it up and one of my little ones walked over. “I got you something," she almost whispered.
“Wow, cool box,” I said.
“Well, I’ve got to have that back.”
“Of course,” I said. "A box like that, you want to save. You could give other gifts in that box.”
“Mmm hmm.” She was sort of hopping from one foot to another. “Wanna open it?” She was so excited that her eyes were shining. Big grin.
I shook the box gently. It was so light; I thought maybe she was playing a trick on me. We do that kind of thing. But she was too expectant. Too happy-nervous.
“Well, I don’t usually get gifts on random days. This must be really special.” I opened the lid. Cotton.
“You’ve gotta take the cotton off.” She was going up and down on her toes. Her smile a little image of beauty. “First, our morning hug.” We hugged. She is a hugger.
I lifted the top layer of cotton off. There was a tiny bird skull. Very small. Very delicate. Very beautiful. “I knew you’d like it,” she said. “I just knew it.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “I wonder what kind of bird it might be.”
“I wondered too. We found it on our neighborhood. It was laying there all by itself. You think maybe it’s a hummingbird?”
“I don’t think so. Those have longer, more slender beaks. Almost like a curved straw.”
“Oh yeah. I remember. Like the hummingbird skeleton we have on the wall.”
“I think this might be a wren,” I said, still a little breathless from the tiny exquisite skull. “I don’t think we should put this in the science area. Too fragile. Someone could damage it by accident.” Our science area is filled with bones - from the vertebrate of a pilot whale, to the skulls of deer, a wild boar, a fox, an opossum, a mongoose from Hawaii, a great blue heron, a green sea turtle and many more. This little guy could get lost.
“Let’s hang it up on the wall. We could put it with those other skeletons,” I suggested.
“Oh yeah. That would be cool.”
That’s just what we did. It is up there along with our prized bat skeleton that my class recreated after leaving it buried for 3 months or so in a mesh bag. There are bird skeletons, a frog skeleton and small rodent skeletons we recreated from owl pellets.
What was so special about that little scene is how much affection is shared in our little community. There is so much care. There is so much love.
It isn’t something that my college methods professors ever talked about. Even the best ones. Respect maybe. But I don’t think love ever came up in our heady conversations. We talked about best practice. Varying instruction to meet children’s needs. We talked about progressive education. Democracy in classrooms. Not love. Never love.
But love is what it is all about it seems to me. I never said the “L Word” to my young friends for many years. I felt it to be sure. But it has only been in the last 15 or 20 years that I said it. Out loud. And it feels good. A little awkward at first. Even a little scary. But after getting it out there, it helped with all kinds of things.
I’m not saying our group of friends doesn’t have challenges. We do. Almost every day. There are unkind words. Times when we just don’t do our best. Times when I have to talk privately about some management issue with someone “in my office” (a.k.a. the hall outside our room). Most of the time I preface these remarks with, “You know how I feel about you, but… You are such a good friend, but… Listen, we care about each other in here, right?” Then on with the lecture.
But that preface part? The love part? It makes a difference.
I’ve been in this business for a long time. 36 years? A lot of teachers I have known didn’t stick it out. They got burned out. I get it. It is hard. There is a lot of pressure and a lot of responsibility. Young lives at stake.
What has helped me is that I try – as much as possible – to be myself. And I encourage kids to do the same. So when I read something that makes me angry in the paper, something that seems outrageously unfair, the kids know it. And when I read the “Last Day” chapter in Charlotte’s Web, the kids expect me to get a little misty, to lower my voice to a whisper, to take long pauses before reading on.
For the most part we are like that with each other. And that little bird skull? That little spontaneous token of appreciation? It meant so much because that child knows me. She planned out that little surprise to wow me, to make me feel good, to let me know that she was thinking about me when I wasn’t even there.
Now it is often dark when I get to school and dark before I get into my car at night. But sometimes I leave feeling that no one could have a better job than this. Who else gets to plan with a group of friends how to learn amazing things, have interesting conversations, read incredible books, and write beautiful stories? Who else gets to spend this much time with so many people they love?