We Teach More By Our Actions



It was a warm summer evening and my adult computer class was on a 15-minute break, after the first hour. We started at 5 p.m., so it was still light outside. I left my classroom door standing open and lounged in the doorway, enjoying the fresh air -- something I could never get enough of.

From behind me came a quiet female voice, "Mr. Garrett?"

I turned and saw what was possibly the last face I ever expected to see again on the campus of the junior high where I had started teaching after I gave up teaching high school chemistry because it was just too doggone easy.

The kids you teach -- all the little geniuses -- it's no challenge. They did whatever you asked of them, they did it the first time and, usually, perfectly. I swear, if I had asked those chemistry kids to jump up, they would've jumped up, and stayed up, until I told them to come back down.

But Julie -- I'll call her Julie, but that wasn't her real name -- was not one of those.

I was now in my sixth year at the junior high, and I met Julie during my first year there, the year I had no classroom of my own and spent my day traveling around the science building with all my things on a cart. She was in my second-period biology class, a small, dark-eyed, dark-haired girl with a plain, but pleasant, face.

On the first day of class, I told the students to sit wherever they wanted and I would just write down their names on the seating chart and those would be their permanent seats. Yes, I know. That's a little unusual, but it was the way I did things and it worked fine.

I also told each of them to tell me what they wanted me to call them -- first name, nickname or whatever. When I came to Julie she said, "Charlie." I could see by the expression on her face that she was testing me, but I just wrote it down, and from that day on, she was Charlie. So what? What's in a name?

I didn't know, nor would I have cared, that she was one of a family of kids who were notorious for their bad behavior, kids quite literally hated by every teacher in the school. I avoided learning that kind of information. I just treated each kid as a blank slate when he or she passed through my classroom door, doing my best to write a little something on that slate before he or she went on to something better.

Julie did fine in my class. She was bright, she worked, and she cooperated.

Sadly, she did not last out the eighth grade. She just disappeared one day, and a week later I got a notice saying she was "no longer enrolled." I didn't ask why. I didn't want to know. I worked with the kids in my classroom, and that was that. Where they went and what they did outside my classroom was none of my business.

I taught. I worked on changing what I could change, and I let the rest go.

And now, six years later, here was Julie. I turned and said hello and she smiled. She was pushing a baby carriage and looking healthy and I was glad of that and told her so.

My adult students were coming back from their break, passing by us on their way into the classroom. Julie looked at me, her face serious, and said, "I don't want to interrupt your class, Mr. Garrett, I just wanted you to see my baby."

Then she paused, looking a little embarrassed. "And," she added very quietly, "I wanted you to know that I don't do drugs anymore."

A few minutes later, she was gone. I never saw her again.

I've pondered the meaning of that short visit 1,000 times. Here's how I see it: Unlike the other teachers on the campus, who treated her as the terror they "knew" she was, I treated her like a 14-year-old girl who was in my classroom to learn a little science. As far as I was concerned, she was as much a part of the class as any other 14-year-old, and just as welcome. No more, no less.

Perhaps she enjoyed being treated like everyone else. Perhaps it meant something to her, something special.

Perhaps, as she traveled on through life, she remembered what it was like to be treated that way. And perhaps it provided her with a goal, something she wanted to see more of in her life.

I don't know. I'd like to think that's true, but I can only guess.

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