I was recently asked what job I dreamed about having as a kid and, at first, wasn’t really sure how to answer because I don’t ever remember dreaming about being a particular “thing.” But as I thought more about it, I guess I could say I thought about being a teacher. Not because I had any great desire to teach or an over-abundant love for children. Neither did I entertain any grandiose imaginings of my future self making a profound difference in a kid’s life or presenting myself as an unsung hero, inspiring young minds to seize the day. No. My adolescent self entertained thoughts of teaching while sitting in my seventh grade classroom, hoping and praying that the teacher would not utter the words that I knew were inevitable…”Pick a partner and…” It didn’t matter how that sentence ended because those first words, the words I dreaded, would simply paralyze my twelve year old brain.
I was the new kid at Queen of Martyrs school on Chicago’s south side. The path which led my little brother Paul and I there was a bit circuitous, but was the result of a hasty move from our old, comfortable neighborhood to a new and completely foreign world. No longer was I accepted simply by virtue of my last name. I was a legacy at my old school, having had five older siblings pave the way. Everyone knew us. I was the mascot of our grammar school football team, my eighth grade sister, the captain of the cheerleaders. Life was good.
That all changed when we transferred schools and I came to the brutal realization that I had nothing going for me. Suddenly, I was a gangly, stringy-haired, self-conscious, nerdy introvert in desperate need of a friend, but sadly lacking one. Oh, did I mention I wore glasses and a retainer? I wasn’t cool. I was the most uncool kid you could imagine. A few kind souls reached out to me. They were the other kids on the fringe whose welcome I happily accepted. My brother didn’t suffer as much, having found his niche as a star of the fifth grade football team. Soon, his reputation garnered a little respect for me and I was able to bask in his shadow.
But his benevolent umbrella couldn’t help me when I was stricken with the inevitable order to find a partner. The worst were days when my possible partner was absent. My heart would go into absolute panic-mode as I’d scan the classroom, silently beseeching someone – anyone – to notice me and offer to partner-up.
Those were the times when I fantasized about becoming a teacher. As a teacher, I would NEVER, EVER direct my students to “find a partner” or allow them to arrange their desks as they wanted – an activity that would send the other kids into fits of joy. No, I swore that would never happen on my watch.
Well, fast-forward four decades and I never did become a teacher, which is probably a good thing. But, to those teachers who may find themselves reading this, I now beseech you to always consider the the outcasts when addressing your classroom. That is one way you can leave a lasting impression on those kids. The smallest acts of kindness will always be remembered, as will the hurtful moments of isolation, which seem to plant themselves deeply into one’s psyche.
I suppose the silver-lining of that experience is that I was able to draw upon those memories to teach my own kids to notice the outsider on the playground and be that kid’s friend. Because he needs a friend. So I guess I did become a teacher after all. Class dismissed. 🙂