It's the end of the school year, and it seems every time I open my mouth to speak to a student, something sappy comes out. I'm awkward with goodbyes, with telling the kids how much they mean to me, but at the same time I want them to know. Middle school is such a crazy time--I want to somehow tell each student all the good things I can see underneath that rough exterior. I want to give them these words to remember, encase them in glass, like a keepsake they can take out and study at some point in the future when they think back about their middle school teachers, something positive to block out that one time I gave them an exasperated sigh or maybe even a bitingly sarcastic comment.
It's funny, though. No matter how carefully I choose my words, it's unlikely those will be the ones they remember. I'm well into my third decade of life, and although my memories of elementary, middle, and high school are a bit blurry overall, there are these moments that are as clear to me now as the moment they happened. Clear as though they were encased in glass, actually. And I would venture that, of the memories involving teachers, none of them are moments that those teachers really wanted me to keep.
My clearest memory of kindergarten is a sulking glimpse of my class playing "Skip to my Lou" from my spot behind the cloakroom door, where I had been sent after I had demonstrated a karate kick which resulted in my little brown oxford shoe flying off my foot. "We don't kick our shoes at people," my teacher said, and to this day I can feel a sense of burning injustice and shame.
I have lots of memories of second grade, but two of the most vivid also involve shame, or at least morbid embarrassment. Looking at them from my grown up angle, I'm sure they were completely unintentional on the part of my lovely teacher, but at the time, I wanted to curl up and die. One was pretty common for me--I never could shut up, and my teacher chastised me in front of the class for talking to my friend Mark, except she hinted that there was a romantic bent to our purely platonic (and, if it's possible for two second graders, purely intellectual) yet nonstop conversation. I remember Mark's ears were a deep shade of red, and I thought I'd never forgive her for embarrassing me like that.
The other memory was about my school picture. It was ugly. Or rather, I was making a very weird face in it. I can actually remember the entire sequence of events with the photographer, how he patronized me and how I made a dumb face at him because I wasn't good at hiding my disgust with adults when they were stupid. But the embarrassing part was when my teacher got the proofs for the photos and said to me, in front of the class, "Elissa, come up here and look at your picture. You want retakes, right?" For some strange reason, this mortified me--that she would tell the whole class that my photo was ugly, basically. I flounced up to her desk, took one brief look at the photo (with my vision all red as I'm sure my face was as well), and declared, "I like my picture. I meant for it to look that way."
That was a complete lie, of course, and at the time I had no idea why I even said it. The next week or whatever when I got my pictures, I was too shy to go back up and ask her to get retakes. Too proud, maybe. So to this day, my second grade picture features a smart aleck girl making a weird smirking face that shows her complete contempt for the photographer. And every time I look at it, I remember that moment of flouncing up to her desk.
There are more of these memories...many for each year of my schooling. These are my mildest moments of shame; I'd feel bad writing publicly about the ones that hurt the most--the ones that still sting now instead of making me laugh, as these do now. It's possible I'm just very sensitive to being embarrassed, but I would guess that I'm not alone in this, that many people carry with them the memories of those small shamings.
Right now, the boys and I are reading the Ramona Quimby books out loud at bedtime, and so many of the events in Cleary's books are about moments just like the ones I remember. As we read, we laugh at the image of Ramona, always misunderstood. We can relate to those moments. And I can only hope a few of the other moments stick, too, the ones that let my students know that I care.