I’ve taught fourth or fifth grade in low-SES communities ever since I worked as a fifth grade teacher at P.S. 72 in Spanish Harlem when I was a graduate student completing my first master’s degree at Hunter College. Hunter prepares teachers to work in “urban settings.” Hence, when it came time to find a job, I only looked at schools above 96th Street in Manhattan.
During my first year of teaching I worked with 26 kids, many of whom had IEPs or were held-back once or twice. That means I had kids who were 12 when they began the fifth grade with me. Some of them had tough exteriors, but when things got tough, they turned to mush (when no one was looking, of course) in front of me. I was shocked when the toughest boys and girls in my class cry when they got upset during my first year of teaching. (I remembered holding back tears in school until I got into the safety of my home when I was a kid. I rarely ever cried in school.) Hence, even a few years, and a couple hundred miles North, later I still find myself surprised that kids cry in front of their peers.
Not so long ago, Rashad*, who is usually too cool for school, grew upset with his peers when we were doing a special activity outside of the classroom. Plump tears began welling up in his eyes. By the time I walked over to him, they were streaming down his face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“C’mon, you can tell me. I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s upsetting you,” I replied.
Nope, he said with a head shake.
“Do you want to go and speak to someone else?”
More head shaking.
“Okay…” my voice trailed-off. I don’t like it when I my kids won’t tell me what’s wrong and they seem upset. I’ve never been had mind-reading capabilities. However, I don’t like to push too much.
Rashad stayed near me for another ten minutes, not speaking about what was upsetting him. His tears ceased, but I knew he was still upset from long look he wore on his face.
I had to go and help other students on the other side of the room we were in, thereby leaving Rashad’s side. Moments later I heard three kids yell across the special activity room to me, “Ms. S., Rashad’s crying again.”
I knelt down beside him and said softly, “What’s going on?”
Rashad shook his head again.
“C’mon. Let’s go outside to talk.”
That’s when the unexpected happened: That’s when tough-talking, basketball-playing, I’m-way-cooler-than-you Rashad, in front of all his friends, grabbed my right hand and held it tight while I took him out of the room. He held my hand all the way down into the school office (He wasn’t in trouble.) where I took him to cool down. He spent about ten minutes there and rejoined the class, never telling me what upset him.
To this day, I’m still shocked he wanted to hold my hand. I’ve had kids lean on me, grab hold of me, or literally cry on my shoulder. However, I’ve never had a tough-as-nails student grab hold of my hand like a small child. This moment with Rashad taught me that even the kids who appear to be toughies on the outside need just as much love and support from us as the kids who wear their emotions on their sleeve.
*= Name has been changed.
Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.