Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Kasey's Story

Today was a crazy day. My drive home was clouded with self-doubt. I was tangled up in wondering about how be more successful at engaging and motivating my 26 students, many of whom seem uninterested or not invested. I worried for the students who could be getting more, and for the ones who are getting--what feels like--all my attention. I was caught up in what I could do to feel I'm having more of an impact. How can I be making a difference? There needed to be an answer tucked away somewhere, and I willed it to surface for me. 

The sound of my stomach growling distracted me from perseverating. My thoughts shifted to dinner, which reminded me that I was out of milk. Milk took me to the grocery store for a quick in-and-out trip. And there, entering the store from the doors opposite me was Kasey.

I love serendipity, and for more of a reason than just because it's fun to say.

Kasey was in my 5th grade class three years ago. She's in eighth grade now. Kasey was a beautiful girl, tall for her age, mature in her style of dress. She still is. Kasey was an identified student with a learning disability in reading. Kasey was dealing with more adversity and loss in her personal life than most students I've had a chance to work with.

Kasey may well have been the first in the more recent string of students to teach me what teaching is about.

Kasey was part of a challenging class, much like the one I am responsible for now. Kasey had a strong influence among her peers, and I suspect over the adults in her life also.

See, Kasey had a rough exterior. She was edgy, smart-mouthed, and quick to unleash her tongue if she felt any reason to protect or defend herself or her position of influence. I suspect she had a history of this behavior serving as a coping mechanism for her learning differences. She had a mean bark and an effective bite--enough that she convinced most peers and adults to keep a distance. The truth is, underneath it all, Kasey was wishing to be like everyone else. She needed a way to overcome the embarrassment she felt and to begin to find peace with the heaps in her life that felt unfair. Kasey had my heart. 

The day finally came when I asked her to be vulnerable by talking to her about her personal goals. She acknowledged she felt embarrassed about needing individual attention. She expressed that she felt dumb when attending classes in the resource room. She was overwhelmed that everyone knew she couldn't read as well as they could.

I made her a promise that day. I looked her in the eye and told her I would help her. I told her I would work as hard as she would. She slid down low in her chair, trying to shrink. She let her hair fall over her face, shading her eyes. She cried.

And long after she left that day, I cried, too. Not just for the part of my heart she had crawled into, but because she was just one story of many--kids who were hardened to help because they hurt too much from built up perceptions of negative self-worth.

I think what mattered most for Kasey is that I never backed down from my word. I worked tirelessly until I found a series that matched her interests and was in striking range for her. We conferred daily. I advocated for in-class support as much as possible and included her in reading groups with her peers. We had chats to touch base when she was discouraged or angry about her situation or her progress.

That spring, Kasey cleared our district benchmark for the end of grade 5. She made two years' growth and remains one of my biggest reading success stories.

There were tears when she went on to 6th grade, and the old Kasey seemed to protectively live just below the surface throughout her 6th grade year. I worried about her in middle school and still do, but ultimately, the confidence she gained by pursuing her goal for improvement and achieving it has prevented her from returning to the hard encasement she wore as religiously as her eyeliner, torn jeans, and huge hoop earrings.

I know, because I saw Kasey tonight. She was the same sarcastic personality who "can't wait for high school." But her smile and her hug said what her voice could not: I'm still doing alright.

When I promised her I'd help, Kasey believed me. She accepted the help, accepted the challenge. Why? She's never told me, and I never asked, but I think it had a lot to do with the way I met her where she was. I didn't judge her, or remind her of what she wasn't able to do. I didn't try to change her, and I reminded her--however I could--that I cared about her.

That was three years ago, but my students today bear resemblance to Kasey. Their stories are different, their needs each unique. But there are similarities to what Kasey needed. 
They need high expectations, 
consistent consequences, 
reminders of how much I care,
and a promise that I'll work as hard as they do to achieve what they want.

Thanks for refocusing me, Kasey. I guess I'd better get some rest. 

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