This summer, I was gifted this old teak chest by my aunt and uncle who were moving and in no need of it. At first, I wasn’t sure if I wanted it. The surface was pretty worn and rough and the wood had grayed over the years. I considered just tossing it to the curb.
However, I decided to put some work into it and clean it up. To see what was under the surface.
After 45 minutes of power-washing, scrubbing, and applying teak oil, I was pleased at what I was able to uncover. A beauty stood before me. What was almost tossed aside, will now adorn my patio.
As I scrubbed this chest, hands dirty with grit and grime, I thought about my incoming students. Often our students come to us also hiding their true selves. Showing only rough exteriors, they may goof off, seem apathetic, or be downright hostile.
However, it is our job as teachers to work through their rough exteriors, to uncover the beauty underneath.
To show our students that although they may be living lives that have weathered them, we see what's under the surface.
Maybe the student who is constantly seeking attention is doing so because he doesn't receive any at home. Maybe the girl who mouths off believes she is only fulfilling her role as "the bitch," a title that her mother delivers unto her daily. Perhaps the boy who is ditching your class is doing so because he is fearful that finally everyone will discover that he can't read.
Years ago, I had a student who came to class every day with an attitude. She made rude comments to her classmates, rolled her eyes at me, and scoffed loudly at activities I had asked her to complete. Knowing she lived in a group foster home, I tried to cut her some slack, but one day she had a huge outburst that ended up disrupting the entire class. I held her after class, upset that she had ruined my lesson.
However, instead of scolding her and being quick to throw a detention at her, I simply pulled up a chair next to her and asked, "What's going on?" I remember her looking at me, not sure what to make of my question.
"What do you mean? You're keeping me here," she said coolly.
"No," I said. "What's going on? With you?" It was then, when she saw in my eyes that I was genuinely asking, a flood gate opened. She told me about her home life, why she was removed from her grandmother's care, and how she ended up in a group home. She expressed how much she missed home, how she felt she didn't fit into this school, and how the other girls at the group home had been picking on her, making it worse.
We did talk about her behavior. But it was a discussion that resulted in talking about how she could better cope with her anger. She left my classroom knowing I understood her and that I could see that there was more to her than the anger she often expressed.
From that day on, she was my buddy in class. She did her work, she even came into class with a smile, and when days were bad, she was upfront with me about how she was feeling.
One day, suddenly, she stopped coming to school, and after reaching out to guidance, I was told she had run away from the group home and that they couldn't find her. Eventually, I heard through the grapevine that she made her way back to her grandmother's home.
I think about this student from time to time and wonder how she's doing. As an adult now, is she making it on her own? Does she have other adults in her life who take the time to listen to her? To see what's inside, deep within the layers?
Our students sometimes come to us covered in baggage. If only we take the time to work away at the surface, to scrub and sand away at the harshness that sometimes stands before us, we may discover the beauty inside.
And this time well-spent can lead to relationships that will linger in your heart for years to come.
Tomorrow, a new class of teak chests will be set before me. How I can't wait to spend the time to get to know what's really under the surface of each one.