Once long ago, when I was in my 20s and we lived in the city, I worked at a tiny school out in the middle of the blueberry fields. There were about 50 children attending from kindergarten to grade 7.
The class that I worked in was filled with kids in grades 5-7 and on my first day, the teacher pulled me aside and gave me a quick run down on the kids.
"That one," he pointed to a sandy blond boy in torn, scruffy jeans and a t-shirt, about 12 years old. "is a brat. Don't bother. He'll just give you a hard time."
I stood there, studying him as he joked with his friends, then reached over and shoved a smaller student with a sneer. He looked up at me and for a split second across the room, our eyes met.
His were filled with suspicion and anger.
I've never believed that there are just "bad" kids. After having worked and lived with some of the most difficult teenagers that the city has to offer, I have learned that they are kids who have survived bad circumstances. They have taken on behavior that might be needed to survive and what they don't realize is, in some circumstances they don't need that behavior. Then we just need to work on changing it.
I think Jason hated me at first. Every interaction was laced with sarcasm, and he would never do what I asked him to do. Ever. Until one day after school, I decided to start leaving the kids little "love notes" in their desks. I praised how they handled things at lunch with their friends. I told the girls how valued they were. They were just little scraps of paper with kind words on them, but the effect was magical.
I told Jason that he brightened my day with his smile. He did! I didn't see it often, but when I did, it was like catching him unaware.
The next day he went to get his math book out of his desk and the note fell in his lap. As I watched from across the room, he carefully unfolded it. Our eyes met across the room and slowly, self conciously, he smiled slightly. The next day, he helped me carry some books. After school, he stopped at my desk to chat. The next week, he sternly told some rowdy kids to settle down for the substitute teacher. We worked hard on his math to bring his grades up, and celebrated with high fives. That anger he had seemed to just melt away when he walked in through the doors.
"You are here to work with these kids, not be their friend!" the teacher sternly chided me after school one day. What he didn't understand was that in order to work with these kids, you had to be their friend. They wouldn't open up unless they trusted you first.
Christmas came that year, and unfortunately so did an end to my time at the school. The kids showered me with gifts and cards throughout the day, but Jason held back. When finally everyone else had left, he approached my desk; his blue eyes filled with tears, his sandy hair rumpled.
"I didn't have anything else. It's not a Hallmark card," he thrust a piece of lined paper at me.
On a folded piece of paper from his notebook, he had carefully drawn a beautiful winter scene, and on the inside had written,
"You are the best teacher I've ever had. I'll miss you. Merry Christmas."
Tears welled up in my eyes and began to drip down my cheeks.
"It's not a Hallmark card, " Jason apologized and looked at his shoes. "It's not a nice one like.." he gestured towards the stack of expensive, glittery cards and boxes of chocolates on my desk.
Our eyes met once more. This time, his were uncertain and a bit sad.
"No Jason, it's not, " I smiled through my tears, "THIS kind of card is a million times better."
It's been fifteen years, three districts, about 100 schools since that Christmas. Jason is probably about 27 years old now, and has kids of his own. The glittery, expensive cards have long since been recycled and the chocolates were eaten.
I still have the card that he made me, all those years ago.
Photo credit: Keep Waddling1