On her first day of kindergarten she literally crawled around on hands and knees, meowing like a cat during our music class. She was that kid. The one everyone in the school knew by name by the second week of school. She was 5 – adorable and spunky – and tough, man, was she tough.
She spent most of that first year screaming – screaming because she didn’t get her way, screaming because she didn’t want to do what was asked of her, screaming because she didn’t have the skills to manage the box we call school. She screamed so much that, after a while, no one even blinked an eye as they walked past her latest tantrum. It became just another layer in the busy school soundtrack. She was one of those kids that kept us walking on eggshells – we never quite knew what was going to set her off.
We learned early in the year that, while she came from a home filled with good intentions, those intentions often came in the form of criticism, constant negative reinforcement and unrealistic expectations. It wasn’t uncommon to hear her mom shouting at her on the playground because she had taken her hair out of a ponytail at some point over the course of the 7-hour school day or because she had put her papers in her folder the wrong way.
You see, when you live in a world where you are never good enough, you see yourself as bad, unlovable and unworthy of any type of positive attention. That was the inner dialogue we had to interrupt. That was our job – to build her up a little more every day so that, hopefully, at some point, those positives would at least begin to balance out the negatives.
In first grade her screams turned to tears and eventually began to become less frequent. She worked closely with our guidance counselor and special ed teacher on developing some coping skills and reacting appropriately to the size of the problem. For her, a big problem earned a big reaction – and a small problem did as well. She made a few shaky friendships.
She began to find some success in the classroom. Her first grade teacher recognized that, not only was she able to do the work, she was able to take it to a level far beyond her years. That kid began crack a smile once in a while. She began to take pride in her work.
In second grade her teacher called her gifted. Her teacher saw through the tough exterior and found a little girl who needed, more than anything, to know she was good, to know she was capable, to know she was loved. She had a brilliant year academically. She wrote stories and poetry, drew pictures that were detailed and conveyed her outside of the box style. She made connections in classroom conversations that we didn’t even see coming. She still often struggled with friendships, but had learned to navigate the tricky social waters of the playground enough to always have a friend or two by her side. It was a good year.
Third grade was tough. She found herself in an environment where her classroom teacher didn’t have the time or resources to give her the positive attention she needed. Her old behaviors came back with a vengeance. She was moody and unpredictable. There were times she was downright unlikeable. That kid was back.
It made me so sad, because I had seen just how far she had come and saw all that progress slipping away. In December she came to me and asked if she could come spend her lunch recess working on a song with a friend. I hesitantly said yes, that they could come just for that recess – and, honestly, that may have been the most important decision I have made in my entire teaching career.
That girl and her friend, another creative third grader, ended up spending recess with me at least twice a week for the rest of third grade and all of fourth grade.
They came up with a band name. They came with notebooks full of original song lyrics. They came with laptops to record their creations. They worked to add harmony parts to their newest songs. They came with friends to add a flute part to this or a drum part to that. They asked for my honest opinion about their musical decisions. They asked clarifying questions about composition, music theory and instrumentation. They understood chord progressions and creating a piece of music that went somewhere musically in a way I didn’t until college. They auditioned for, and were accepted into, our district wide talent show performing an original song that was musically sophisticated well beyond their years. They rocked it. That kid walked on stage with confidence and pride.
This was my last year as her music teacher. She’s moving up to the middle school in the fall. She came in to say goodbye and get one last hug on the last day of school. She quietly asked if the middle school music teacher would allow her to stay in for recess to work on songs once in a while. I told her I didn’t know for sure, but I would make sure her new teacher knew how important that time was to her.
You see, that kid had found herself in those unstructured moments in the music room. She saw all her talents – her passion, her drama, her energy, her love of poetry and creative writing and art and performing – come together and create something magical, something that others saw as special and unique.
We both were teary as she left the room for the last time. When I think back to that little girl who spent her first music class meowing like a cat, I hardly recognize her as the same person. Sure, she still has her moments, but they are light years away from where they were in both intensity and frequency.
She is a true success story, not because of me, but because of a whole community of adults who came together and consciously decided to work on building her up instead of breaking her down, to help her recognize her own strengths instead of only harping on her challenges. It’s hard to let her go, knowing that she’s leaving our little bubble, but I know that she’s ready and she’s better for the time she spent with us – and we are definitely better teachers and humans because of the time we spent with her.
That kid and so many others like her are why being a teacher is worth it – even on the days when it feels like the screaming won’t ever stop.