Promises To Keep

I’m a teacher. But there are days, like today, when I wonder why. It’s been a tough day. The results of an English quiz taken by my fifth-graders were dismal. Despite my best efforts, the world of pronouns remains a mystery to them. How I wish there is a way to make the study of our language as exciting as a computer game, so the glazed looks would not appear in their eyes at the mention of the word “grammar.”

I wanted to spend my lunch period thinking of a way to enrich the next day’s lesson, but a child became sick and needed me to gather her assignments while she waited for her mother. It took longer than I thought so there wasn’t time for lunch. Then an argument broke out at recess. Angry boys needed to be calmed and hurt feelings soothed before we could return to the classroom. We were all emotionally spent and found it hard to return to history books and Revolutionary War battles.

Hunger had given me a nagging headache, lingering long after the last child filed out for car pool. Now, hours later as I drive home, rubbing aching temples, I remember my husband’s words, delivered like a lecture, after other days like this. “Why don’t you quit? You’d probably make more money doing something else, and you wouldn’t have papers to grade every night.”

This late afternoon, I’m considering the wisdom of his words. I have a stack of papers to grade, which I promised my fifth-graders I would return tomorrow. But tonight a friend, whom I haven’t seen in a year, is visiting from Belgium, and I told her I would keep this evening free.

Frustration builds as traffic slows, and I realize it’s rush hour. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to get out of my classroom ahead of the traffic. The world of my profession, a world filled with children, requires so much time. After school today, we had a faculty meeting. Events had to be planned, problems solved, new ideas discussed. So many details to remember. Just when I thought my day was over, a student peeked her head into the classroom to remind me I had promised to help her with a difficult assignment. The building was empty when I returned her to her waiting mother and wearily walked to my car.

Sitting in traffic threaded behind a distant stoplight, it’s hard not to replay the day and revisit the tension. I turn up the air conditioner, hoping the coolness will ease my frustration and aching head. The last notes of a familiar melody are interrupted by news from the real world. Stock prices are down. Crime is up. The sound of gunfire fills the car as a broadcaster reveals the horror of life in a distant country. A strained voice reports the body of a local youngster, missing for weeks, has been identified. Click. Too much real world has invaded my space.

This missing child has had a profound effect on my fifth-graders. Every morning since she was first reported missing, my children have discussed news reports about her and prayed for her safe return.

Their concern was not only for her and her family but also for themselves. After all, she was one of them. A child believing herself to be safe and secure in her own neighborhood. My students, only one scant year younger than the tragic victim, wondered, “If it happened to her, could it happen to me?” Their thoughts and fears mirrored my own as I tried to find the right words to calm anxieties hoisted upon them by a world seemingly gone mad. There were no easy answers to quiet their apprehensions. How could I help them make sense out of senseless things and restore security to the small world of our classroom?

My children, ever wise with the innocence of youth, had found the answer themselves. They got out their pencils, markers and Crayolas and made cards. Cards written with words of compassion and love for a mother and father they didn’t know. Cards that spoke of faith and the promise of peace. Cards adorned with ruby red hearts, golden crosses, spring flowers and rosy-cheeked angels. No grammar book, no lesson, could ever teach the beauty of the thoughts drawn and expressed by these children. Their cards, intended to comfort others, comforted the children themselves by leading them past the anxiety, back into the world of security that should be theirs.

As I sit in my car inching through the fumes of evening rush hour, I reflect on the strength of my students as they sought to right their world in the one way that made sense to them. I find myself smiling in spite of the heat, the traffic and the pile of ungraded tests. The rules of grammar might not have been learned today, but something bigger and better happened in my classroom. I just didn’t recognize it at the time.

And then I remember. I remember why I’m still teaching. It’s the children. They’re more important than a lifetime filled with quiet evenings and more valuable than a pocket filled with money. The world of noise, pronouns, recess and homework is my world. My classroom, a child-filled world of discovery, of kindness and of caring is the real world. And I’m so lucky to be in it.

The traffic clears and I move past the stoplight, into the shady streets of my neighborhood. I’m glad to be home. It’s time to call my friend and tell her I can’t meet her tonight. I have promises to keep. She’ll understand. After all, she’s a teacher.

 K. H. R.

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