She sits at my banana table and she’s talking to me, during my conference period, her tennis looking like puffy pink and white marshmallows at the ends of skinny little legs as she swings them back and forth.
Her eyes are puffy, too.
The dark bags under her wide expressive eyes puff and darken more when she talks about what’s troubling her.
She tells me about needing to lock herself up in her room to get some space, some peace, to escape a while from the responsibility of caring for her younger sister – who’s around five.
I find this out because she mentions going to her room and locking the door a few times during our conference and I notice that every time she does so, her voice breaks up a bit, so I tell her that I noticed and I ask her why.
She says she feels stressed a lot of the time at home because she’s usually put in charge of watching her baby sister.
She tells me there’s only two things that make her feel better: When she locks herself in her room, and when she goes outside and runs. She tells me she runs a lot.
She tells me she doesn’t really eat lately. I gently ask if there’s food at home and if meals are made regularly and she says yes. She does not look neglected nor does she exhibit outward signs of any kind of abuse, so I don’t push the issue.
She got a 54 on a bullshit Reading CBA. She’s not a 54 student, so when I asked her why her grade was so low, she started to explain, but she began tearing up, out of embarrassment, and of fear that I was going to be disappointed in her. It was then I knew, so I asked her, and she told me.
She’s a small, wiry little thing. When she talks about the things that upset her the most, she hunches over the table, bowing her elbows out, her small, birdlike hands palms flat against the surface as she presses down, hard. It’s a physical manifestation of her literally trying to keep herself together, her emotions under control.
She is one of my students.
This is a little girl.
A 5th grader.
This is her life.
And compared with some of the other students I’ve taught over the years, her life is not that bad.
This is normal teaching at an At-Risk school along the Texas/Mexico border – along the entire U.S./Mexico border.
The label says it all.
Due to the low economic status and the poor infrastructure, these children have the deck set against them. Our job as teachers and educators at these At-Risk schools is to even the odds. Pick up their English language skills, so their speaking, reading, and writing skills are on par with native language speakers. We’re here to rid them of the shame and embarrassment of not speaking well, and replace that with confidence and pride.
She is incredibly verbal. She is sweet and always very helpful. Once she came up to me, gently placed her hand on my shoulder and told me that if I ever needed help with anything, to let her know, and she’d take care of it. I thanked her.
She communicates and expresses herself well, and it’s obvious she has a high emotional intelligence IQ as well as a lot of good, common sense. Unfortunately that’s often the result of too much responsibility being placed on one person. They are forced to mature faster.
In our Mexican culture, it’s still usually the females.
I tell her that I understand. I tell her that’s she’s a great student, a good person, and a wonderful young girl. I tell her that I understand it’s not very fair, the burdens placed on us. I share the G rated version of my story, that I had to take care of my father when he was sick, even though I was the youngest – and I make a point to make her laugh because I emphasize the fact that I don’t look very young.
The curse of being the Responsible One. Adults and older siblings all around, but if you’re the responsible one, your cup gets filled first, and keeps getting filled. This a common occurrence. More common than it should be. I’ve known quite a bit who’re in the same boat.
I tell her the cold, hard truth. You can’t talk about rainbows and sunshine to a child who’s lived mostly in cloudy skies and rainy days. They know how life works. They’re not blind sheep. I tell her that her struggle does make her unique, that it makes her stronger. I tell her that’s why she needs to focus on her studies, get the best grades she can from now till senior year, so she can grow up, graduate, and move away, so she can be free of her obligations and live just for herself. To keep her head down and barrel through.
I ask her if she likes writing or if she’s ever journaled. She says she used to – and write songs as well. I told her that was great because that’s what I used to do, too.
I ask her aside from being in her room, or jogging, what else does she like to do. She says she loves to paint, she loves creating structures and decorating them. I told her that was fantastic, because I’m planning to incorporate those kind of activities in Centers when we start next week.
She brightened up. I told her if she ever needs, she can always come in to class the first 10-15 minutes and write, to just let all that anxiety out. She smiles and thanks me. She looks relieved so I ask her if our talk helped and if she feels better. She beams and says yes.
I tell her to go back to P.E.
I inform my assistant principal. She tells me to call the mom and set up a meeting. I say sure, but I ask if she could be present to give the meeting the sense of importance it needs. She agrees.
I was fine the rest of the workday. When I got home, it hit me, a pricked balloon, I just sagged, came undone. I barely had the energy to take a shower. I always say, When it comes to teaching, if you come home at the end of the day fresh-faced and full of energy, you’re doing it wrong. These things stay with you.
Teaching these kids means making sure they’re in a good frame of mind, that they’re not upset because mom and boyfriend fought. I have to make my classroom a safe space, where we can all forget our problems and lose ourselves to the joy and the mental exhaustion of learning, where we can all be better than who we were yesterday.
It is a challenge.
That is no lie. But it is worth the fight everyday. And to me, that’s the whole point.
I took this picture that night, to show how worn out it got me.