All she said was, “he doesn’t have a pencil.” And as quickly as the words were out of her mouth, he was angry, on the verge of tears, and storming out of the classroom.
Welcome to sixth grade.
It had already been a rough afternoon of substitute teaching for me. The first signs of a cold were settling onto me, and the “great kids” the teacher had told me were in her classes must have run away, leaving evil twins in their places. I was looking forward to twenty minutes of relative peace during the science test – and dreading the minor mayhem that would grow as kids finished the test and began working on another project.
Then came the storm.
They don’t teach you how to handle outbursts like that in Substitute Teacher School. Oh yeah – I didn’t go to Substitute Teacher School. They didn’t teach it in business school or seminary, either.
Then my mind went back to a high school gym I’d stood in four years earlier. It was for a program called, “Breaking Down the Walls,” designed to help high schoolers hear a bit of their fellow students’ stories – and perhaps be a bit more understanding of the differences surrounding them.
We all have stories. Our lives are not so much a novel as they are a collection of interrelated short stories. And we don’t get the chance to read those stories from the beginning; we always pick up the book somewhere in the middle, unaware of what has happened in the previous pages. So when sixth-grade Johnny has to hide his tears because of a pencil, I need to remember that there’s an earlier story I missed.
I don’t think the girl next to Johnny was trying to be a tattle-tale; I think she was trying to help so he could take the test. But because she hadn’t read the first of Johnny’s stories, either, she didn’t know what he would do. Instead of helping, it turned a bad situation worse, inciting snickering, laughter, and even some mocking. (On the plus side, Johnny was outside by then; on the down side, they’re sixth graders: it probably won’t end there.)
It would have been really easy for me to just tell the helpful girl—and the rest of the class—to mind her own business. Instead, I briefly introduced them to this idea of stories as why it’s sometimes important to simply let each person take responsibility for himself or herself. I’m sure the wisdom fell on deaf ears. After all, they’re sixth graders, and I’m just a substitute.
But maybe—just maybe—one of those kids will remember the sixth grader who cried about a pencil, and ask for a story. Or maybe I will.