Crayon smells drifting from a newly opened box, paste, not glue, smeared across pieces of construction paper, and the smell of old paper back books stacked once again on a rickety bookshelf bring back the welcome of returning to school. Stacked with that also comes the slam of lockers, screeching of new shoes, and voices dreading and loving being back in the halls of the hallowed. Even as a teacher, my nose has a hard time resisting the urge to bury itself within the box of newly opened crayons, or smear glue over the palm of my hand creating faux dead skin. Admit it, you all did that at least once in your life...if not...you;re missing something wonderful.
Walking back into the school year was as rough, and not as rough, as I expected. Getting into the swing of thing, flooding my brain with new curriculum (ugh), a new reading series, and one hundred fifty students to learn from, and of course, educate. With it, though, came a flood of memories that find my healed heart hurting once more, and I find myself dealing with a grief I thought I had managed. I find myself grieving once again...and I'm okay with that.
So once again I share with you this story.
We were both new. The size and volume flowing through the halls of the school threatened to bulldoze the both of us, and although we were eager to meet and greet the swarm of people buzzing around us, the sheer number of over one hundred fifth graders threatened to topple the poorly assembled self confidence that allowed us to put one foot in front of the other.
It was my first teaching assignment...well...my first one that had me teaching a full classroom for more than one week at a time. I was a student teacher. Christmas break was over, and the kids were definitely not ready to begin the second half of the school year. Standing in front of the class (did I mention that I was shy?) being introduced to the reluctant prisoners, I could smell the nervous sweat emerging from pores I didn't know existed. I had no idea fifth graders could be so intimidating. And right when the buzz saws starting going off in my head and I knew I"d be making imminent contact with the concrete floor, totally embarrassing myself, he walked in and saved me.
He was the new kid; just moved in from another school. His fist clutched tightly around a stack of pencils, a worn out binder, and a school bag slung across his shoulder were the weapons of choice. However, he clearly won the battle with a huge smile as he introduced himself, Travis...came from so and so school...mom just moved back to hometown...where do I sit?...and so on. Together we took on the school and awkwardly danced our way through the fifth grade year. But this really isn't about me at all, and then again, it is.
You see, teachers love their kids...we really do. Well, most of them anyway. When they walk through those doors of the hallowed insane, they become ours, and we love them and teach them and encourage them to reach for the stars and tackle the universe. But every once in awhile there comes a student that for some reason invokes more. And even though you only have them for a short while, the impact they make on your life lasts forever. For me, Travis was that student.
His fifth grade year wasn't all peaches and cream. Although he had that winning smile, it wasn't easy for Travis to make friends. As far as school went, Travis was an average kid that loved science and never did his homework. His bowl cut hair and ill fitting jeans kept him apart from most kids, but eventually he found a niche with a small group of boys, trading cards and telling stories. The stories that child would tell like the time his mom introduced him to this famous rock star, or the time he got to stay up all night playing some game, and how his parents let him do whatever he wants, and why he didn't do his homework because his step dad punished him last night and made him did holes in the backyard and then fill them back up again and he was doing that until 2:00 in the morning. Or the time he threw him out in the middle of a winter night wearing nothing but boxers because he was being too loud. I wanted to take him home. Keep him safe. Allow no harm to come to him again. He moved before the year came to an end.
He came back the next year, and then moved again. Two years later he returned once more. He was no longer the scruffy little guy in ill fitting jeans struggling to fit in. He fit in. Not with the best of crowds either, but he fit in. His eight grade year was a rough one, in and out of trouble, in and out of school. He found his first love, albeit a rather young first love, and finally, moved on to high school. Of course, it wasn't all caviar and champagne. Travis fell into a rough crowd, dropped out of school, and just kind of wandered. I never knew when I was going to pick up a paper and read about his incarceration or even worse, death. And even though I was no longer his teacher, I still wanted him to succeed. To get out of the rut he was in. To become, as corny and cliched as it sounds, the man he ought to be. I still loved that kid.
I saw Travis last spring, and you wouldn't believe the turn he had made. Yes, he was still the goofy kid I taught in fifth grade. They never do grow up you know. But he had reached his turning point. He was clean, drug-free, sober. He was employed, responsible, alive. He was in love, and with the same little girl he had met in eight grade, and she loved him in return. He had gone back and earned his G.E.D. His life was on the road to recovery and damn it all he was becoming the man he ought to be. I had never been so proud. We talked for a while, I think I told him how proud I was at least a half a million times before giving him the teacher student hug and walking away. I cried, not in front of him of course, did the Calvin and Hobbes happy dance, and went back to school and told everyone I could meet that my baby boy was becoming a man. You see, I wasn't the only one whose heart Travis had captured. The science teacher became his "mom" during sixth grade, and in the eight grade, the guidance counselor adopted him. We loved him. We were his alter ego moms. He made us proud.
Travis died in February. He was killed after loosing control of his car and crashing into a tree. I am going to miss that kid. The one I saw grow up into a man. And I will always remember him as the fifth grade boy who walked into my classroom and stole my heart.