Back to School Bar-B-Q

Last Wednesday we had a back to school bar-b-q in the schoolyard. It was blisteringly hot out, but the littlest kids didn’t seem to notice. They were running around, channelling beginning-of-school nerves into boisterous energy. As adults, we huddled in the limited patches of shade, fanning ourselves, and wishing for the AC just inside the door.

As a teacher of 8th graders, I was in a weird position. Most adults got to see students they had taught the year before, the welcome party turning into a reunion party. But with my students about to start 9th grade, it was mostly an afternoon of trying to put faces to the names of the newest class of 8th graders.

But towards the end of the day
several rising 9th graders appeared, sauntering across the school yard with the walk of students who feel ownership. Their confidence shone in the way they greeted the teachers. One was even proudly wearing the polo of his new high school. But their confidence was undercut when I asked them about the start of school.

“Excited…” one girl began, “but a little nervous,” she added sheepishly.

“That sounds about right,” I reassured her while wishing we’d gotten to know each other better last year in the hopes that that connection would have given more weight to my words.

Turning to one of the boys, I was pleasantly surprised that even though I’d had a very poor relationship with him, he greeted me too, saying hello and shaking my hand. Perhaps the power dynamics of our situation at the picnic left him feeling like he had to say hello? Or maybe he was starting to forgive our contentious dynamic? Probably wishful thinking.

On the way home from the bar-b-q as I was riding past a project where one of my former students lives, he appeared in front of me on the sidewalk.

“Hi!” I exclaimed, grateful for my fortuitous timing and my choice of transportation (bike instead of bus). “How was your summer? Your hair has gotten long!”

“Yeah,” he responded while rubbing his hair with his hand. “It was good, Ms.”

“How are you feeling about high school?”

“Good. Ms. we had orientation yesterday and I tried out for the football team already and I already got on it so I’m good.”

“Well that’s exciting!”

His next question surprised me.

“Ms. where’s your bike?” I was riding a Hubway bike, not my own.

“Oh it isn’t changing gears well so it’s in the shop,” I responded. After assuring him that I was going to pick it up that afternoon. I let him go on his way, off to soak up the last few days of summer.

Once I got home there was a text message from a former student.

“Hey miss sorry that I have to text u right now but I just wanted to tell you that I started school yesterday 🙂 🙂 🙂 and I already made friend and they are very friendly and I love my teachers”

Pride filled me. She’s starting at a new school in the suburbs and I was nervous for her — they don’t get a lot of students who are learning English and though she’s one of the most personable people I know, she was nervous.

By this point my head was kind of spinning — five former students in one day. But it got me thinking.

There’s that maxim that students will remember how you made them feel more than anything else. I struggled with this a lot last year because sometimes my content felt so practically important. Writing a good essay could directly affect where a student would sit for the next four years of their life, at least. But I also struggled with it because I wasn’t very good at remembering it when faced with 24 wriggly 8th graders.

These encounters, right before the first day of school, reminded me that making students feel safe, welcomed, loved, capable is my goal. But it also made me realize that I really can’t predict what students will remember. Will they remember my bike? Will they remember incidents of conflict? How can I do a better job of balancing the emotional work with the content? And what will the journey of these students look like?

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