Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Michael's Story-

Photo Credit: horncologne via Compfight cc

You know the kid.  The small, insecure, kid in the back of the room that feels like he has to show-off to make up for his lack of size compared to the other 5th graders. He's the one slumped in his chair, acting cool-- daring you to make him learn or do anything.  The jokes, bad attitude, and sarcastic outbursts disrupt class.  You wonder why this kid is screaming for attention--any attention--even if it's negative.

His name was Michael. He was in my class my second year of teaching.  To make a long story short; he challenged me.

Why am I thinking about him now?  I don't know exactly. Maybe it's the music of the holiday season. Maybe it's because I'm thinking about how to reach and engage some of my kids that are in my class this year.  Maybe it's because Michael taught me the importance of building a relationship with students early on in my career.

None of my college prep classes taught me about the importance of building relationships- that there really couldn't be learning without trust. I was unprepared.

Michael was an only child.  His single mom worked hard, but couldn't or chose not to be home. There was little, if any, support for Michael as far as school was concerned. I cringe now that I didn't know more about him earlier in the year.  Did he have food in the house?  Is that why he couldn't concentrate in class? I don't know.

As a new teacher, I tried to attend some of my students' extracurricular activities.  I couldn't make it to everything, but I certainly did try.  Michael was a baseball player.

I remember him being so surprised that I showed up at one of his games.  I can still see his big smile after the initial shock of seeing me there.  He played well! I took pictures, talked with his mom and enjoyed conversation with her.  [There's something to be said about conversations with parents outside of school in a more informal atmosphere.]

After my visit, Michael worked harder in class.  He didn't interrupt as much and tried to learn.  It took me nearly the whole year to get him to that point. I learned a lot of patience.  I learned that kids learn at different paces and that they learn in different ways.

 I learned that Michael had a passion for music.

Once I unlocked that tidbit of knowledge, the world changed. However, by that time, school was almost over for the year.  

It's never too late to connect with a student.  Michael started to hang around after school.  We had some marvelous conversations!  Although I loved to visit with him, part of me wanted to shoo him home so that I could prepare for the next day.  I'm glad that I didn't! I'm glad that this time I listened to my inner voice telling me that I needed to take the time with this kid.  After all, I said all of the time that my students were "my" kids!

One day during one of our conversations, he went over to the piano and started plunking on the keys.  I invited him to sit down and play.  I could tell that he was self-conscious because he had no musical training or experience.  I asked him if he'd excuse me for about 10 minutes to grab some books for the next day's lesson.  Michael told me that he didn't mind and after I left, started to play the piano.  As I listened just outside my classroom door, it warmed my heart!  And then...a moment of inspiration!

Upon further investigation, I found out that Michael had always wanted to take piano lessons.  There were some hurdles though.  His family didn't have a piano nor could his mom afford lessons.

 I just happened to be good friends with Mark, a former concert pianist that taught piano lessons. (An  injury to his hand changed his life's path, but that's a different story.) Mark and I had collaborated to produce some school musical productions.  He was already a hero to Michael which made my plan even sweeter.  

I made arrangements with Michael's mom to take him to Mark's house once a week for music lessons.  I paid for the lessons, but Mark basically taught the hour long lessons for free.  Michael practiced a couple of times a week on the piano in my classroom, but in between those days, he used an old keyboard.  It was summer by now and although I didn't have to be at school working, I was. Having Michael come to my classroom to practice the piano was really no big deal. [Note* This was nearly 30 years ago.  Life was different.  Policies/practices were different. I'd never do now what I did then.]

In a couple of months, I literally watched a boy grow into a young man as he pursued a life-time dream.  He learned to play the piano quickly and beautifully.  Michael had a natural talent, passion, and drive to practice which allowed him to excel at an unprecedented pace.  Words won't even allow me to express how happy he was while playing the piano.  I could see it in his countenance.  Nor will words allow me to express my feelings of actually making a difference in someones life.  After all, that's what all teachers want to do.

Unfortunately, the lessons only lasted a few short months.  Fall brought changes and he stopped making music.

For years after that summer, Michael would occasionally stop by my classroom to say hello, plunk on the piano keys, tell a few jokes, and engage in the 5 minute conversations of middle schoolers.  He struggled in school and laughed off the pain.  He had a life that no child should have.

There were a few years when he didn't come to visit and I wondered where his decisions were leading him.  And then he came.  It wasn't a very long visit.  He had just been released from the Juvenile Detention Center. We laughed. We joked. We reflected on his growth and future goals.  

He told me that I had made a difference in his life and was one of the few people that he knew cared about him. He told me that he still loved music but didn't ever get a chance to play the piano.  He promised me that he would make better decisions and straighten out his life.

Shortly after that visit, I found out that Michael had been killed in a car accident.  He had been with friends in the canyon drinking.  The driver of the car was speeding and didn't navigate a curve.  Everyone was killed when the car went over the embankment and plummeted down the side of the canyon.

I often think of Michael when I don't take the time that students need.  There are so many times when I want to shoo them off so that I can finally have a peaceful, quiet, moment and time to prepare for the next lesson.  I've done that so many times.  Did I miss another chance to have a conversation that could make a difference?  It makes me cringe!  I can always make time to prepare a lesson, but I won't always have opportunities to build relationships.  What good is a lesson if kids don't know that you can be trusted and that you care?

As I'm planning for the next half of this year, I'm also renewing my commitment to build stronger relationships with my students.  I will make time for positive phone calls home because I know the power behind positive communication.  I want to make sure that when students leave my classroom this year that they know that I care about them as an individual.  They may not remember all of my "great" lessons. I hope they'll always remember how much I cared.

Tucked away in my teacher treasures is a little potpourri burner that Michael gave to me as a 5th grader--a reminder to "light the fire".  It's time to put it on my shelf at school as a constant reminder of the importance of building relationships with my students.

We all have taught or know a "Michael".  How do you build relationships with your students? I'd love for you to share.

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