By Jennifer Berney
Let me begin with a confession. When I signed up to visit your classroom on Fridays, it wasn’t because I wanted to help. I volunteered because I was curious. I wanted to see how my son had settled into kindergarten, if he had made friends, if he followed the rules, to make sure he didn’t spend the day hiding beneath the table or whispering to friends. I wanted to see you, his teacher, in action. Also, I thought that kindergarten on a Friday might be entertaining.
You didn’t disappoint me.
On the first morning, as I walked through your door, I was surprised to discover that you took attendance in song. “Good Morning, Kylie” you sang, “Good Morning, Rowan.” Each child heard his own name and replied by singing “Good Morning Teacher,” to confirm his presence. The children were so attentive, so organized and earnest, and their voices were so sweetly off-key that I couldn’t bear it. I kept stifling laughter and wiping tears as they gathered in the corners of my eyes. But you continued to lead them, unfazed, accustomed as you are to this hilarity and sweetness.
One afternoon when all the kids were tired, I watched you steer my son away from an impending meltdown. A friend had given him a sticker earlier that day, and he was convinced that it had fallen from his pocket and was now lost forever. He wasn’t crying yet, but I could hear the tremble in his voice from across the room, and I was certain that in moments he’d melt into a puddle on the floor. “Will you do me a favor and go check your cubby?” you asked him sensibly, as if he too were in a sensible mood. You engaged with the problem, but not the drama, and he followed your lead. Of course, the sticker was in his cubby. My son shuddered with relief.
On a different day, I watched as another boy, in tears, ran to you as if you were his own mother. You placed your hand gently on his shoulder and allowed him to take comfort for a moment before you lowered yourself so that you could learn why he was crying. He explained that a friend had taken over a toy that he had put down for a moment. “Well go tell Daniel how you felt about that,” you instructed him. I watched as these two boys had an intimate conversation in the corner of the room. Minutes later, they emerged and reported to you that they had fixed the problem.
I’ve seen you clip the tag out of one little girl’s shirt because she complained that it was itching her. Upon spotting you with a pair of scissors, another girl lined up behind her and asked if you would please clip a loose thread off of her shoe. “Anyone else need anything?” you asked the room, making light of how often your work is interrupted by a child’s immediate physical need.
Once, at the end of a game of polygon bingo, I heard you explain to all twenty-five of your students how winning doesn’t feel good if you’ve cheated. I’ve seen you teach them a line to help them cope with disappointment: “Aw, shucks, maybe next time.” You punctuate this line with a snapping gesture, and I’ve seen the children in your classroom mimic this unprompted after someone else has won at bingo, or been chosen as the next line leader. You’ve trained them not to cry, or scream that it’s unfair. “Aw shucks, maybe next time,” more than a few of them whisper, and then everyone moves on.
Under your instruction, my son has learned how to properly hold a pencil, and learned how to write legibly, first in capitals and more recently in lowercase. He has learned to write from left to right and to leave “finger spaces” between individual words. At the beginning of the year, he could make sense of a written word by sounding it out methodically. Now he reads full sentences, pages at a time; at night he climbs into his top bunk and reads himself to sleep with a headlamp. His transformation from non-reader to reader happened faster than I would have ever imagined. One night, in the midst of this transition, my partner wondered aloud how many kids you had taught to read over the years, and I marveled for a moment, thinking of the hundreds of children whose hands you’ve guided, your hand helping theirs fit to the shape of the pencil, the hundreds who have echoed your voice making alphabet sounds and reading sight words.
I’ve spent much of this year wondering how we got so lucky. My son is quiet and sensitive, but obstinate; he doesn’t like to be told what to do. I worried that kindergarten would mark the beginning of a long struggle, that he might hate school and cry every morning. But your rules and your kindness, your patience and your limits have helped him feel at home. The teachers that come after you, they don’t have to shine as brightly—he’s already formed his opinion of school. He likes it. Of all the jobs you do, from teaching kids subtraction to helping them tie their shoes, it strikes me that this one is most essential: you invite them to bring their whole selves, their best selves to the classroom.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Hip Mama, Mutha, The Raven Chronicles, and the anthology Hunger and Thirst. She is currently working on a memoir, Somehow, which details the years she spent trying to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes. She lives in Olympia, Washington and blogs at http://goodnightalready.com/.