Two angry boys were in a standing stare down war right in the middle of my classroom.
Both wore oversized white t-shirts, but the colors they represented were the hidden choices they made: red back pocket kerchiefs, blue sneakers, red or blue socks. It was against school rules to show allegiance to any gang, but like many rule breakers in public school, they did it secretly.
I like to think I’m a tough girl, but compared to my friend Holly – a principal who has broken up fights with her sheer iron will – I’m pretty much a wimp. I remember doing the “think about twenty solutions in a matter of twenty seconds” brain freeze before taking a hesitant step into the middle of the brewing possibility of a knock-down, drag-out fight.
The only thing I knew was that I was going to try. Try to break it up. Try to reestablish the safe culture in my room – the atmosphere I had been attempting to secure since my arrival at this school. The glimpse of hope when I watched two students hug a few weeks earlier. Two students at odds for several years…since one of them slammed a textbook over the other’s head. The honesty of an apology.
I knew it was possible. I just didn’t know how I was going to temporarily put a Band-Aid on the swirling tension in my classroom right now, in this moment. The years of hate perpetuated by ugliness and fear and poverty and lack of love were coming to a literal violent head, and there wasn’t enough time to do anything but physically react.
When a kid tells you that last night he carried his bullet riddled best friend into the Emergency Room, there’s a good chance he doesn’t care about the intricacies of adverbs, adjectives, and direct objects.
When a student opts to eat the peanut butter and jelly you keep in your cupboard because he “forgot his lunch” today, there’s a good chance he doesn’t want to know about Mark Twain’s use of satire.
When my sleepy junior is trying to keep her eyes open because she had to pick her mom up at 4 a.m. from the bar for the third time this week, she probably isn’t worried about whether or not she missed the class lecture on expository writing.
Early in my teaching career, I learned quickly that life is way more important than school. I learned the hard way, because early on I took it personally when a student snapped at me or slept in my class or didn’t make much effort to pass my tests and quizzes.
But it’s really about what I choose to see.
Because the girl who snapped at me finally opened up about the countless boys she’s slept with. She, in her own words, was trying to replace her absent daddy’s love.
Because the kid who fell asleep in class had spent the night watching his “family” snort coke around the living room coffee table.
Because the last kid who failed my test didn’t study. Why? He worked until midnight – him being the chief money maker for his single mom and little brother.
I can see the snapping, the sleeping, and the failing.
Or I can see the person.
A few days ago one of my students asked me a pretty pointed question.
“Mrs. Wisehart, I know you say you love us as people. But you have to admit that if we don’t do our work, it’s gotta affect the way you look at us. At least a little.”
He was giving me a challenge. To continue to look past all the outward stuff and choose to see the people they are. Yes, if you’re in my space – in any realm – my goal is always to love you too much to leave you the same. And I’m going to continue to push my students to be the best versions of themselves that they can possibly be.
But loving them is about seeing them. Not for what they do, but for who they are. And I’m not going to do it perfectly every time. But I’m always going to try. With everything in me, I’m going to try to see past the outward, the choices, the failures, to the hearts of who they are – who they want to be.
Who they really NEED me to see.
There was steam rising from both boys as they faced off for the pending confrontation. Suddenly, the unexpected happened. A tall lanky kid in the back of the row – probably one of their leaders – stood, forcing the boys to turn their heads and pay attention.
“We’re not going to do this here. Not in Mrs. Wisehart’s room.”
I don’t know if the fight “resumed” at a later date and time, and I don’t know what prompted that kid to stop the fight. But I do know that under those over-sized white t-shirts were just a couple of boys who wanted to be heard, cared about, and loved like every other teenager in this world.
When we see them as people, they might not always SHOW us who they really are, but we can GIVE them who WE really are.
We choose what we see.
The word CHOOSE has been really important to me the last few years. I wrote a book about it, and now I’m leading a conference about it in Fort Wayne, Indiana on May 4, 2019.
The conference is for women and teenagers – ages 12 to 112 – and it is a one day conference giving you the TOOLS to make the BEST CHOICES possible to live the BEST LIFE possible. The first 100 teenagers are FREE – and I’d love for you to join us. Get more information and tickets here.