My third year as an 8th-grade teacher, I taught an honors level language arts class. My memory of this particular class always falls on a particular day—last period on Halloween—and of “M” who came to school that day dressed as a bunny rabbit. I remember this because he fell asleep during the lesson and when his “furry” head, which had been bobbing and nodding for several minutes, finally made contact with the desk, his long pink ears knocked over his water bottle, which spilled all over his neighbor’s books.
A few months later, M and I were receiving police protection.
The decline in his schoolwork had been steady. Once a frequent participant in discussion (the Halloween “nap” was likely caused by a carb crash), he’d grown quiet. So one day, I asked M if he was okay. He passed me a piece of paper on which he’d drawn the symbol for the Latin Kings, a predominantly Puerto Rican gang that had grown powerful in our urban community.
Within five minutes he and I were sitting with the dean of students. M had joined the gang but wanted out. They’d threatened his life, his family’s lives. The school made arrangements for him to stay with his grown sister a few towns away, and every day after school, our vice principal drove him there, and every morning picked him up. An unmarked car sat outside M’s family’s house. And afraid word would get out that M had disclosed to me, that I had been instrumental in helping him leave, an officer sat outside my classroom, day after day, week after week, until one day, M didn’t come to school. Extended family from Florida had come for him. I never saw him again.
And then last May I opened a Facebook message, which began: You saved my life. It’s not as if you did anything remarkable. It’s just that you were there. My eyes blurred as the words graphic artist, married, and son came into clearer focus.
Here at A Woman’s Place (AWP), I frequently contribute time to the Education & Training department’s school-based Peace Works program, going into classrooms and talking about healthy boundaries, true and false friends – and helping kids figure out who they might go to if they are in trouble. Sometimes it’s harder to tell someone really close, like a parent, so we suggest “a trusted adult,” and we brainstorm as to who that might be.
As we celebrate National Teachers Day, and I think back to my career, I hope that my students remember me as a dedicated instructor. But I’m prouder to say that I know one student saw me as a trusted adult. A teacher doesn’t need to stand in the front of a classroom. If there are children in our lives, we are, by default, life teachers, helping children flourish, reach their full potential. But are you a trusted adult? In this crazy, wild world, you can be…just by being there.