Crayons and Cockroaches

Cause I ain't got a pencil

First thing every morning, a herd of boys come in to my room slapping each other’s hands with gang handshakes and putting off their work with every excuse in the book. “I don’t have paper;” “I lost my notebook;” “I don’t have a pencil.”

In an effort to teach them responsibility, I don’t hand out pencils like I did last year. Most of them will eventually find what they need to do their work, whether that means digging deeper into their book bag or getting it from their friends. Most of the time, the “I don’t have a ____” excuse is a cheap trick to procrastinate.

But one particular boy crushed my heart. He never had a pencil, but he was always anxious to get some kind of work done. He would beg me for a pencil. And cruel as I was, I gave him a crayon. I thought, surely, the embarrassment would help him remember to bring a pencil, or the frustration of writing with a crayon would motivate him to find a pencil from someone.

Instead, I watched him write with crayon day after day until I caught him bent over his paper with a tiny nub of a crayon to finish his classwork.

I gave him a pencil, certain that I’d be loosing all my pencils to him soon enough. But at the end of the class, he gave it back, restoring my faith in my students.

In my second class, I have a student that comes from a very troubled home. I found this out after I met his grandmother at a mid-morning conference. She came in smelling like stale alcohol.

One day he came to school with cockroaches. They came out of his backpack in a swarm–abandoning the old food smashed at the bottom of his bag. The incident earned him the name “cockroach boy,” and sparked an investigation into what kind of home life he has if his bag could gain such an infestation with little notice at home. He received a new backpack right away, but the rest is still ongoing.

Neither of my stories have resolutions. The first boy still asks for something to write with every day and the second boy is constantly getting pulled out of class by his social worker.

When I see this sort of thing every day, its easy to say “I’m so thankful that I don’t have to go through that.” But that kind of “us and them” is much too distancing. I am with them every day and I don’t want to push them away and think that what they go through is something outside of my world because I have a direct effect on their world.

Instead, let me say I’m thankful to have each of my students in my life. Through them, I am constantly reminded how much of an effect my actions have on the people around me. Evey day, my students train me in the art of forgiveness which means starting each day as if yesterday didn’t happen (and sometimes it’s starting each moment as if it’s the first); patience which is waiting without a heavy sigh for a new moment to come; and tone and word choice which is learning what it means to speak all things in love–not anger, or exhaustion or frustration.

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