How Much They'll Miss Us

It's the time of year when kids start feeling their oats.

In the gym where I teach, I use rolling plastic risers called "Flip Forms" to organize classes, dividing children among the four colored risers as they enter the room. This breaks up clumps of friends and creates ready-made teams that can compete with each other for quietest, most confident singing, best listening, etc. And yes, I know "winning" a competition like this is extrinsic motivation, but at this point in the year, I will pragmatically do whatever it takes to hold their attention long enough to teach a concept. It works up to a point--that point being when the active boys (somehow, it's never girls) start jumping off the top riser, having their own competition to see who can break an ankle first. I move the children to another part of the gym for the next activity, and now the really active boys are wandering over to the risers whenever I'm not looking to continue jumping off of them. This is true from kindergarten to fifth grade.

There are other misbehaviors that transcend gender: sass, backtalk, crosstalk, smuggling in candy or toys, and all of that's before we even get to the instruments, where their little fingers just can't hang on long enough for it to be their turn, and we have to get everyone quiet before we can start playing according to the lesson plan, rather than the internal crazy bone.

It's enough to make any teacher lose hair. Today after school, a second grade teacher walked away from the last bus she had just ushered children onto rolling her eyes and sighing, "I am so DONE!" During that same bus duty, a boy on the bus next to the one I monitor kept calling out an open window to me, "Music teacher!" When, for a moment, I walked closer to his bus, he said it again, with an addendum: "Music teachers suck!" Two days ago, a first grader, placed in time out for repeatedly distracting his neighbors, told me "I hate you!" and "I hate music!"

I take this all with a hefty dose of salt because of the following words, emailed to the entire staff last Friday by our principal:
Please continue to exercise patience, remembering that at this point (whether they can articulate it or not) they're already missing you.
And just like that, my frustration evaporates.

There is so much love in this building. We all work as hard as we can to reach every student, even the chronically misbehaving. When I discipline a student, whether it's a time out, a trip to the office, or (in extreme cases) calling for someone to come and remove that student, I do my best to keep my voice free of frustration and, if possible, to do it with a smile. I want the child to know I'm not doing this because I'm angry, but because I need to be sure the rest of the class has a chance to learn, and things are hard enough in the echo chamber without having a child testing the acoustics with high-pitched screams, picking fist fights with a friend, or stalking another student right before my eyes. The effort at maintaining a calm exterior and communicating to the children that the discipline comes out of concern, rather than anger, seems to be paying off: the child with the surly attitude toward music (like the kid on the bus) is extremely rare; and even children I've had to discipline multiple times still greet me with a smile in the hallway.

We love these children, and they know it. In less than a month, they'll be away from us, going home in many cases to unstable situations, cramped apartments, less supervision, absent, neglectful, even abusive parents. Some of us they will not see again: fifth graders will be in middle school next year, some children are moving over the summer, and some teachers (myself included) are leaving this building for different assignments in the district.

Saying goodbye to adults who've played a more important role in a child's life than his or her parents is traumatic. There's anticipatory grief behind much of this misbehavior, as children lack the sophistication and self-knowledge to articulate how sad and frightened they are to be away from this safe, structured place for three months. I feel some of that, as well. I develop an attachment to any children I spend time with, and I've spent many hours with these children, almost none of whom I will see again after June 11. I'm going to miss them.

For the first two years of being an interstate parent, my children usually flew together to see me for a weekend a month, longer if there was a school vacation. As our time together drew to a close, they'd begin bickering with each other, the intensity rising as the time to take them to the airport approached. After several visits that left me feeling more relieved than sad to see them go, I asked them in the midst of a fight, "Why do you always do this?" My daughter came back with, "So you won't miss us so much when we're gone."

I wonder if maybe there's a little of that going on, too: children looking out for their teachers, knowing how painful the parting will be, trying to ease the hurt by being obnoxious. If that's the case, it's working at a subconscious level. I'd like to think it's part of the struggle of making it through May, that it's not all cabin fever or fear of going home to unemployed parents or something deeper. I'd like to think these children are acting up not because they dislike us, but, quite the opposite, because they love us and they know we'll miss them as much as they'll miss us. Which is to say, quite a lot.


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