The first day of school is upon us again. Every year around this time, I think of a student I had several years ago. Let's call him Kelvin.
I was aware of Kelvin years before he got to fifth grade. He could be found yelling weird mumbling cursing-ish things to teachers who got onto him in the hallway. He could also be found trailing behind the rest of his class by a couple of yards walking in line. He was a the shortest person in the class by at least a foot, and he had a tiny head. I suspected he had fetal alcohol syndrome, but I never knew what terrible things Kelvin had experienced to make him the way he was.
One year I got my class roll, and there it was. Kelvin was in my class. I immediately went across the hall to my team teacher and said something like, "I knew they would put Kelvin in one of our rooms!! That kid is insane. What are we going to do?" I then went so far as to look up Kelvin's behavior records on the computer. Big mistake. It turns out he had been suspended several times for attacking people (including teachers and bus drivers), and numerous other crazy things.
I felt a little scared. I had had aggressive kids in my class before and it hadn't been fun. I guess as a teacher you assume that if a kid has gotten to fifth grade and no one before you has been able to get through to a troubled kid, that you won't be able to either. It didn't help that teachers who came in my room to chat before school started freaked out when they saw Kelvin's name plate on a desk at the front of my room.
The day before school started I was frantically running around trying to make sure that everything was perfect in my classroom. These were the days when I thought that structure and order were the two keys to having a good school year. This teacher, who I admittedly thought was a little too sugary sweet for my tastes, came in my room. She saw Kelvin's desk, and she gave me some different advice. She said that she had gotten to know Kelvin a little and that he was actually a really sweet kid. She said that he had gotten a reputation as a "bad kid" and that everyone treated him as such which made him act like, well, a bad kid. I asked her for advice about how to start out the year on a good foot, and she gave me advice that I will never forget.
She said, "Make him a positive example on the first day of school. Point out something good he's doing loud enough for the whole class to hear. Also, give him a job so that he can see that you trust him and that he's important to you." I was skeptical, but I figured it was worth a shot. Even sugary sweet people who you find extremely annoying can have good ideas sometimes.
The next day was the first day of school. I stood at the door and shook the hands of my new little students. So many new backpacks and nervous smiles. I had instructions written on the board and all my little friends were dutifully putting away their supplies and making their lunch choices.
Kelvin walked in. He gave me a little mischievous smile, but I could tell he was nervous about the first day of school just like everyone else. He had nothing with him. Not even a pencil. I asked him to go make his lunch choice. Imagine my horror when Kelvin could not even reach the magnet I had made for him. I quickly helped him, and looked around to shoot a dagger from my eyes towards anyone who tried to laugh at the situation.
Later when we lined up for P.E., I made a loud comment thanking Kelvin for following my directions exactly. I heard an audible gasp from the rest of the class. I received looks from ponytailed girls that said, "You don't know how bad he is, do you?"
At another point in the day, we were discussing how to set up our notebooks. Kelvin was drawing in the notebook I had given him. I quietly said something to him, and the other students informed me that Kelvin just drew all day. He never did any work and their teacher last year had been okay with that. I told Kelvin that he wasn't going to be drawing all day in my class and that I knew he was capable of doing the work just like everyone else was. I could have sworn I saw pride on his face. Later when I needed an errand run, I sent Kelvin. At this point the ponytail club was getting frustrated. I could see some eye rolling and secret glances cast between friends. I even had a few kids come up and try to inform me that Kelvin wasn't really the one you sent to run errands. I stood my ground. I had made the commitment to myself that I wasn't going to treat Kelvin any differently. What was the worst that could happen?
It turned out that my attitude set the tone for Kelvin's year. He was pleasant. He tried his best. He turned in assignments. I worked with the guidance counselor to make sure that Kelvin had the school supplies and clothes he needed for school. The administrators and other teachers were shocked when I gave them a positive report about Kelvin's behavior. Kelvin and I developed a great relationship, and I smiled when I saw that tiny kid walk into my classroom every day.
One day Kelvin wasn't there anymore. The next day he didn't show up either. After about a week, I finally got word from the guidance counselor about where he was. Apparently, Kelvin had been abandoned in a house with no power or water. He had been sent out of state to live with a foster family. He was never able to come back to get his things or say goodbye.
I often wonder what happened to him. It is one of my greatest regrets in life that I wasn't able to be there to take him in when his family left him. We have so much power and influence as teachers. As this new school year starts, let's use that power for good. Leave your preconceived notions about kids at the door. Better yet, don't even try to get the scoop about these kids. Give them a clean slate. Give them responsibilities. Treat them as though they were part of the ponytail club. They might just surprise you and you might just surprise yourself.