This is the building where most of my classes have been held. I took the photograph above only two days after I took the photograph below. Man, they can put up that scaffolding fast … and now it will be there for at least a decade, right? There are some buildings in this area I have never even seen in the three years I have been visiting.

The term “scaffolding” is my favorite bit of teacher jargon. It describes the way that a teacher provides a support structure for the student as he learns something new. The closer the student gets to mastering the new skill, the more the teacher can tear away the scaffold, until the student is standing and working alone within the knowledge or understanding he has built. I think I like this term because it sounds easy. It sounds neat and clean … this building of scaffolds and tearing them away. Heck, the city of New York can build a mean scaffold in two days! But I don’t think it has ever been easy for me, because kids are not neat and clean in the way they learn. Their hearts are messy with stories that are hard to wrap a scaffold around.

There are two students I have been thinking about a lot lately. I taught them several years ago, but this summer I cannot get them off my mind. Back when I learned their heartbreaking stories, I asked if I could write about them in a book for teachers. I told them I wanted to honor what they had been through and help other teachers know the kinds of stories that students bring into the classroom along with their backpacks and school supplies. Both students gave me permission. I will write their stories formally one day, but because they are on my mind, I will write today, as well.

The first student is a sixteen year old I will call Manuel. He skipped many days of school, was late when he did come, and rarely attempted any assignment. He was sociable and well-liked, always laughing. He just hated school; you could see it on his face when we would start working. When I looked into his attendance record, I realized that he would be in danger of a substantial fine and credit denial. I took him out into the hall and explained this to him.

“I already know, Miss, but I hate school,” he said, shaking his head.

“What do you mean you hate school? You like my class when you actually bother to come to it. We are always laughing here.”

“I know. I do like your class sometimes, but it is not enough to make me want to come to school. I hate it so much, that when I think about getting out of bed and getting ready in the morning, I start to throw up … The thing is, I used to like school. But I just can’t get that back.”

“Then, tell me about the time when you used to like school. How old were you then?”

Immediately, his eyes filled with tears.

He went on to tell me that when he was in fourth grade he was still living in Mexico, with his family in tact. He loved going to school and enjoyed working on new things. All of the elementary schools had gray concrete floors, which were in need of mopping each day. The teacher assigned the students a rotation of staying after school and mopping the floors. It was Manuel’s turn to mop the floors on the day that he started hating school.

The teacher had stepped out of the room while Manuel prepared the bucket. Helping him that day was the teacher’s son, a friend who was a year younger than Manuel. The son would move the chairs, and Manuel would mop. When they were finished with the cleaning, they got a little playful, and the son ran around the room while Manuel swung at him with the damp mop, trying to flick water on him. Manuel was in the middle of a swing as his teacher returned from the office. He remembers her footsteps behind him and her voice yelling, “What are you doing?!” right as the long handle of the mop caught her at the knees. She fell backwards and hit her head on the concrete. He remembers standing there with the mop still in his hand … as her son screamed, as the other adults ran in, as the paramedics carried his fourth grade teacher away on a stretcher. He remembers the last teacher to leave the room grabbed his arm and spat in his face, “You stupid, stupid boy!” He remembers putting the mop and the bucket in the closet and walking home alone.

Four days later, his teacher died. His family stayed in Mexico, but when he turned fifteen, Manuel moved to Texas to live with his cousin. By then everyone in his neighborhood called him “the kid who killed his teacher.”

“So, I hate school, Miss, and I’m not going to stop hating school. I’m not like the other kids. It’s all messed up for me now. And even though you are nice and fun, you aren’t enough to make me like it. So just let me stay home and feel sick in my bed, because sometimes, that is all I can do,” he said.

The other student, also sixteen, I will call Paula. She had a more closely knit group of guy and girlfriends than I have ever seen. In fact, the entire group of them were in my class together. It was difficult to get them to stop joking around and talking about after-school plans. They spent every waking moment together. One day when I couldn’t get them to settle down, I said, “Do you think you guys know EVERYTHING about each other?”

“Of course, Miss!” they bragged.

“Don’t be so sure! Our journal entries are going to be fun, today. You guys might learn something new. I want you to journal about something you are sure your friends do not know. SOMETHING APPROPRIATE, mind you! Share a story from your childhood that you have not had a chance to tell. Maybe a memory of a favorite gift, a holiday, or a family vacation. Something no one knows.” They wrote and wrote. When it came time to share around the circle, they cackled, punched, and teased to learn these new stories about chin stitches, playground heartbreaks, and suffering from poison ivy.

Paula shared last. She began, “You guys all love my stepdad, right?”

“He’s your STEPdad?! We thought he was your dad.”

“No. I just never told you any different, because I didn’t want to tell the whole story. He’s my stepdad, and, yes, he is like my dad now. We all think he he is great. But I am ready to tell you about my real dad, today.”

She started with a big smile. Years earlier, she, her sisters, and dad were having a big pillow fight on her parents’ bed. They were laughing and having the best time.

Her hands trembled as she continued reading from her journal, “I was being the silliest and loudest, like always. I took my pillow and threw it at my dad really hard. I didn’t think it was going to hurt. It wasn’t supposed to hurt. But he fell off the bed and to the floor. I remember the first thing I saw was blood in his mouth. He had bitten his tongue, and it was bleeding. I jumped off the bed and cried and cried, saying I was so sorry I made him bite his tongue. I tried to pull him up … but he wasn’t breathing anymore. I remember the way my sisters turned and looked at me, like I had done something horrible. The ambulance came and took him away. After that, it didn’t matter how many times the doctors told me that he had suffered a massive heart attack, and it had nothing to do with me, I still believed that I was responsible for my father’s death. Even now, each mornng when I wake up, the first thing that pops into my head is, ‘ I killed my dad.’ I try to think other thoughts, but that is the main thought all the time. I have never said this to anyone, not anyone, before.”

The room was silent. Her friends were crying.

Now, you tell me how a teacher is supposed to build some kind of magic scaffold around a crumbling heart.

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