I was recently asked what job I dreamed of having as a kid and 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. Nor did I entertain any grandiose fantasies 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 brain entertained thoughts of a teaching career 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 little brother Paul and me 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, a 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 directive 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 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 manage 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’s the kid who needs a friend. So I guess I did become a teacher after all. Class dismissed. 🙂