by Mary Buckelew
The following incident occurred in my high school classroom on the West Side of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The occurrence — its details, the students, and the implications continue to inform my teaching.
“How is your life like Odysseus’s life?” I read aloud with Monday morning enthusiasm to my ninth grade students. Engage, Empower with your own Enthusiasm. The most recent inservice mantra echoed in my head or maybe throbbed is more accurate. Monday.
I had pulled the Odysseus question from the student prompt bank/bowl. Students submitted their own questions or statements at the beginning of each week, and three to four times a week, I used a student generated prompt for our opening focused freewrite. The only requirement – the prompt needed to relate to our reading or a current event.
We were in the midst of reading The Odyssey. A watered down version, but a riveting and rich story nonetheless for my ninth graders — a story they were actually reading. And so – unbeknownst to me until this moment — one of my students had pondered the connection between his or her life and the challenges Odysseus faced as he made his way back to Penelope and home.
After writing the question on the board for all to see, we commenced with our morning focused-freewrite. The prompt appeared to resonate for my ninth graders. Some pens and pencils glided across journal pages, while others meandered, but all heads were bowed in earnest responding to the day’s prompt. “In earnest,” heretofore described this class, but out of the corner of my eye, I caught the arc of a wad of paper sailing through the air. Sabrina, a typically quiet, focused, and diligent student, had just launched a ball of paper at Freddie. While surprised at her behavior, I decided to let it go and continued writing in my own journal – only to find Sabrina launching another piece of paper at Anthony; she now had the attention of the entire class and writing was left by the way-side.
(“Pleeeaaaaassssse” I wanted to say – Please, “It’s Monday and it’s only first period –please, let’s have a peaceful day, full of rich and varied literacy activities – a day free of adolescent drama. Breathe in, breathe out.) I paused.
“Sabrina, do you need attention?” I said.
“Yes—yesss” she sighed — a tear rolled down her cheek.
“What’s wrong?” I queried. All eyes were on Sabrina. She was crying, quietly, truly embarrassed, and so sad looking.
“I just didn’t want Maria to know what kind of family I come from . . .” Sabrina uttered and continued –“Last night, my stepfather and mother were drunk and my stepfather was chasing my mother out of the house with a knife. Maria was walking up our driveway in the middle of this mess and my mother jumped into her car and smashed into my step-father’s truck. . .” Sabrina’s voice trailed off and another tear escaped. “I just didn’t want Maria to know . . . We met in Algebra class . . .we were going to do homework together.”
The sunlight streaming in through the classroom blinds illuminated the tears on Sabrina’s honey brown cheeks — intense New Mexico sunlight; motes of dust twinkled like fire flies, Sabrina’s tears luminescent.
A spontaneous, sympathetic sigh erupted from the class.
Sophia (usually aloof, tough as nails facade) leaned over and patted Sabrina on the shoulder.
“Well . . .” I stammered. Awkward silence. Louie, John, Javier, Shamenika, Anthony, Angela, Maurice, Shavon the entire class, silent . . . gazed at me. Throbbing gone. Clarity present.
I found my voice: “Sabrina, I’m just glad that you are here today – you are such a remarkable person.”
(and I meant this so sincerely because here in front of me sat Sabrina, stunningly beautiful in her youth; her attention to detail, clothes, make-up just so, and just as careful about her school work and everything; a straight “A” student in control of her small world at school – yet so much beyond her control — asking for a moment – a pause, a freeze frame, an “I need something” Moment.)
I continued in a lurching and awkward manner, “I know that your friend Maria realizes how amazing you are.” The rest of the class sat silent, staring as I continued – “I’m just glad that you joined us today, Sabrina; your spirit is extraordinary.” (arghhh – uncomfortable silence — What do I say now?)
“Would you like a hall pass so that you can talk with Mr. Robinson (guidance counselor)?”
“No. I’m okay.”
Sabrina picked up her pencil as if to signal, “I’m okay.”
And then I pointed to the day’s writing prompt, again – “How is your life like Odysseus’s?” Here we were writing about a long ago hero when Sabrina was sitting in our midst. I know.
Students wrote about stories and connections to their own lives, literal and figurative, making sense of their present circumstances, battling Cyclops or Jabberwock depending on the day.
I couldn’t fix Sabrina’s home life; however, I am — as a synchronous classroom face- to- face teacher, an architect of time and space; I can continue helter skelter with unchecked Enthusiasm and Test Scores at the forefront — or I can pause.
Dr. Mary Bellucci Buckelew is the Director of the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project and Professor of English at West Chester University. She is co-author of Reaching and Teaching Diverse Populations: Strategies for Moving Beyond Stereotypes. When she’s not facilitating workshops, leadership gatherings, and institute meetings; visiting youth sites for Young Readers & Writers; or teaching undergraduate and graduate courses – you may find Mary composing a poem about life in New Mexico, taking long walks with her husband Paul, visiting with family and friends, or reading a good book!
Mary, I wanted to tell you that your one-word title captures the true essence of this important piece for educators of all grade levels. It made me think of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and how powerful the one right word can be!
Mary, thank you for reminding us to pause. It can make all the difference in a student’s life.