I walked into the classroom of Sixth Graders. These kids are what? Eleven? Twelve? You don’t need to be intimidated by them.
That’s what I told myself.
The desks are set up in three rows of two desks each. In each is a hard little nut of a sixth grader. These kids think they run this school. And it would be hard to argue and say they don’t. I usually sit and watch these kids perform in their little circus with other teachers. I was not looking forward to seeing their act being performed for my benefit. This was one of my first days teaching by myself and my first time teaching 6th grade alone.
I wrote out the first verse of a song on the whiteboard. Behind me I could hear the talking and the laughing and the occasional whistling. I turned around. “Quiet, please.”
They look at me and don’t even miss a beat. No whistling this time though. I should just count it a victory. I turn back to the whiteboard and continue my writing.
“Ok-” I say as I turn around, then pause. There is someone missing from their desk. “Where is Channon?” I ask the suddenly silent class. Another pause as they look back and forth at one another.
The tiny, studious girl that sits next to Channon points to the floor behind the desks. Her name is May.
I stretch on my tiptoes and see the dark, mischievous face of Channon. Channon is a gangly, elfin boy from the far-off village of Serin. He lives at the Home of Hope and “studies” at the school because his Grandmother cannot afford his education and care. I say he studies because that is what he is supposed to be doing but somehow never does.
He was completely prone on the floor. His perfect teeth flashed in his dusky face.
Charm won’t save you.
“Up.” I clip, “Get up and sit in your seat.”
His smile grows. He moves not an inch.
I step forward and grab his wrist, throwing every atom of energy into lifting this boy (who is almost as tall as me, by the way) off the floor. He unfolds and, still grinning like a tanned cheshire cat, slumps into his seat amid the laughter of the class.
“Shhhhhhhhhhhh!” I throw a little extra vehemence into the end of my shushing for good measure.
They subside. That is until I turn back to the board. Then the perky, pretty girl from the village, Athawm, starts singing a Thai pop song with much expression. The other girl in the back row, Baithuey, who is usually stone-faced and looks like she could be a basketball player, joins in with uncharacteristic ardor.
I turn around. “Stop singing and repeat after me.”
They stop. I start reading what I’ve written on the board and the class half-heartedly echoes. We do this a few more times before I decide it is enough.
“Teacher,” Phet, a small sapling of a boy pipes up from the second row, “I no understand.”
“Athawm,” I call back to the pretty girl, “please come up and write it in Thai.”
Athawm went to school in Bangkok and she is far above the class in her English comprehension. She speaks broken English still and there are some things she doesn’t understand, but for the most part she has a good grasp.
She hesitates, “No, I don’t want.” she finally states.
Is that so?
She shakes her head and her eyes are darting around at her classmates. She shouldn’t have worried, half of them were doing un-English-related doodling in their notebooks.
“Come.” I point to the board and attempt a smile.
She reluctantly slides out of her desk and comes up. She takes the marker from my hand and starts translating.
I turn to the class. “Copy.”
Some of them open their notebooks and start to write down the words. I glance over at Channon and see that he has his head down on his desk, apparently asleep. I walk up and pull on his outstretched hand that dangles over the edge of the desk. Nothing. I try to lift his head and I call out his name a few times. His hand slaps my hand away but his forehead does not budge from the desk.
While I am busy trying to resuscitate the apparently lifeless corpse in the front row, the class is degenerating into chaos again. Someone is singing and Phet is still staring at the board, his forehead wrinkled and his eyes skeptical.
I realize I’m losing them again and start visiting desks to check on their progress.
“Seegame, where is your notebook?”
I was speaking to Athawm’s brother, a haphazard boy with eyes that twinkle and a propensity to shriek like an actual banshee. By that I mean that sometimes when I am speaking to the class, he will suddenly erupt in an ear-splitting scream. I think he does it to make me jump. And I do.
Note: all of these things are actual occurrences. I am not making this up.
“Get out your notebook and copy.” I say, making hand-motions to illustrate.
He smiles his cheeky little smile and his eyes dance some more as he pulls out the notebook and starts to write it down.
I limped through the rest of the class and felt physical relief when the bell rang. There is no demerit system in place, no detention, no suspension, no expulsion… Just looks and fancy eye-brow lowering. That’s all I have.
The next morning when I woke up, I was about to pull the covers back over my head and hide in my room until they came to drag me kicking and screaming back into that classroom. I have very little preparation for this. I expected it to be different.
I became a little angry.
Why are you doing this to me, God? Why would you put me here to fail?
My nephew has this thing he used to do to get my attention. If I was looking at something else, he would take my face in his hands and turn it back to him and whatever he was doing.
In that moment of desperation, God did that. I saw something I was trying to ignore. My vanity and my pride. I had been so busy doing everything perfectly, harvesting man’s praise and basking in the glow of the children’s love, that I forgot my God. My devotions had petered out and my prayer life was lacking. I was doing it by myself.
So, He let me do it by myself. I failed.
When I saw myself, I knew in an instant that this was my doing. I begged Him for mercy. I saw endless days of the same failure stretching out before me and I knew real fear and desperation. I could not face these days alone.
That day was still a rough day. But God had already prepared something for me, a little miracle.
The next day of school dawned. I rose to meet the day and I went with such an acute feeling of helplessness. I felt like a baby, going into a battle I was not equipped to fight. Every moment I was fixed on Him. Lord, I need you. That is the only thing I could think.
That morning I sat in the office where the teachers break between classes and rested my forehead on my hand.
“Good morning.” Someone greeted me.
It was Rose. Rose is a cheerful and matter-of-fact Philippine girl who teaches 1st through 3rd grade English. She and I have become friends and I am always enjoying her dry sense of humor and her quaint way of speaking.
“Good morning.” I rouse myself.
“You look tired.” she said.
She gave me a look.
“I teach 4th, 5th and 6th grade today and I cannot seem to keep their attention or even know where to start.” I finally said.
“Oh?” she doesn’t seem surprised.
I wish she looked more surprised. But that is pride. Of course I don’t know! I’ve never taught.
“I’ve only ever taught Bible stories to toddlers at church. I’ve never taught like this before.”
“Well,” she starts, looking at me frankly, “I taught for some time at an ESL school in the Philippines and that was before I went to college.” She paused. “What I would do-”
And what ensued was a simple outline of a vocabulary drill. When I stepped into my 4th grade class, I sent up my plea and whipped out my flashcards.
When I stepped out of the classroom, I was buoyant. Success. Every eye on me, every mind active, every face bright with eager understanding.
The next day, I thanked Rose. She brushed it off. Then proceeded to feed me my next lesson plan to follow up the drill with. The next couple of days were glorious. Rose would suggest ideas, I would follow them and watch as the class ate up the material.
This is my miracle. God had placed Rose here for me from the very first day I arrived. But He had some lessons to teach me in my own classroom of life first.
After another successful class I breezed into the office and sat in my chair. I whipped out my phone. I had some time for Pinterest before my next class. A quote I know well jumped out at me almost immediately.
This was my best day. But I need Him on this day of sunshine and joy just as desperately as I did on that day when I wanted to pull the covers over my head and disappear. I don’t need Him in my storms more and on the days of calm I don’t need Him less. My Almighty God does not change and my neediness for Him does not change, just the circumstances.
I turned off my phone and sat in silence. I am still that baby toddling into battle. So I turned my heart back to Him. In thankfulness for this miracle; this good day. And in desperate neediness for all my days, good or bad.