I met Morgan years before she was a name on my roster. I met her, unofficially, in the hallways of the elementary school where I taught because her older sister, Taylor, was in my class. These meetings were a shy wave and sweet smile on a little blonde peanut. They continued even after Taylor had graduated and moved on to middle school.
And then there was the June day I got my class list for the following September and saw that Morgan would be mine for an entire year. Which meant I got another year with her mother, too. For everyone who’s met Jill, you know this was a bonus treat—though teaching either of the Mysza girls was its own reward; both are the type of polite, respectful, diligent, and kind student that you wish you could clone.
It was the spring that she was in my class when Morgan found out her brain tumor was growing. That it was malignant. This was the week the students came back from their spring break and I remember standing in my classroom after hearing the news. The kiddos were in art—and I just stood. Took a reflexive sip from the travel mug in my hand and then couldn’t remember how to swallow the coffee that was growing bitter in my mouth. I spat it out in the sink.
For about a week Morgan, one of her best friends, and I were the only three people in that classroom who knew she was ill. Her friend and I cried. Pretty constantly. We’d excuse ourselves, or I’d find a reason to face the board for an extra few seconds before I turned around to face the class again.
When she was there that week, Morgan smiled. She laughed. She did her school work, and joked and chatted with friends. She continued to be the sunshine she was.
It was courage like I’ve never seen. This peanut with more composure in her pinky finger than I had in all of me.
Her attendance was patchy from then to graduation—dependent on her treatment schedule and how her body reacted to treatment. But when she was in the room, it was a different place—a better place. A happier place. A place full of tiaras, since that’s how my class—both boys and girls—decided to honor her.
She was one student amid a group of 26, but she was the cornerstone of that class. When she wasn’t there, we were thinking of her. When she was there, we wanted to be around her and soak up her presence.
Morgan was a keeper, and in the years after graduation she didn’t leave my life. She never left my thoughts. I’d decided the day I heard her diagnosis that if the book I was working on at the time—one I hadn’t even finished yet—were ever to be published, I’d dedicate it to her. Send Me A Sign and finally sold last spring and will be published next October. I’ll never forget Morgan’s excitement and enthusiasm when I told her about the dedication: “That sounds amazing. I can’t wait to read it!” And I’ll always regret that she’ll never get that chance.
I’m sitting here right now on the night she passed away, cycling through all my memories of her and trying to make sense of it. Needing to make sense of it. Knowing there’s no way to make sense of it.
Why take her—someone so young, so brave? Someone who unified a community and brought out the best in people. If my words aren’t enough, check out the more than five thousand people who have supported her Team Morgan page. Sending prayer from around the country and around the world.
My heart is broken. And in my mind’s need to find logic in the illogical, all I keep coming back to is concentrated doses. That some people live their lives in concentrated doses. Morgan was one of those people. She may only have had fourteen years, but her impact in the lives of others cannot be measured. Cannot be matched by many who lived a lifetime of a hundred. I was lucky to have known her, privileged to have been her teacher and her friend.
She is beloved. She will be missed. But more than that, she’ll be remembered.
And when I remember her, it will be with a smile.
Today my class was supposed to be going on a field trip that includes a nature hike and sploshing around in a river, picking up slippery rocks and looking for macroinvertibrates. I wish there was an emoticon that truly captures the look my doctor gave me when I asked him about it. Part: Are-you-serious? Part: Don’t-even-dream-of-it. Part: Do-I-have-to-chain-you-to-a-couch-and-feed-you-a-diet-of-Common-Sense-&-Caution.
Each year room 202 has a defining moment.
It’s the instant the kiddos change from a rag-tag group of individuals who happen to have the same teacher to a class. The Schmidties.
Some years they’re united by a sense of accomplishment. Some years a tragedy forges a bond that can’t be broken by graduation. Some groups are lucky; they ease into a sense of cohesiveness just because they have similar temperaments and motivations.
This year’s moment happened today. And before it did, I’ll admit – I was nervous. My kiddos this year are eclectic. They’re quirky. They’re individuals who are proud of that individual status. And all of these things are to be valued and respected… but they weren’t engaging with each other. They were too busy noticing each other’s differences and setting themselves apart. Too busy isolating within their niche or established friends.
They weren’t rude to each other – they just didn’t seem to have a use for or need to acknowledge their classmates.
This couldn’t continue. I want a collective. I need a community. A grouping of isolates wasn’t going to create the type of learning environment in which any of them would thrive.
I knew I’d have to get creative. And I did.
Today’s class meeting centered on respecting others’ differences. With little introduction other than, “Some of you may have seen this before. I want you to watch this video clip and notice how you react to the people’s actions,” I played the video of Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at MTV’s Video Music Awards.
And I watched their faces as they became outraged – or crumpled. We watched the video a second time. This time we paused to discuss how Taylor felt at each stage.
1) Thrilled. Proud of herself for having accomplished her dream.
2) Excited that someone she respected had joined her on stage.
They had such insight into Taylor’s response: noting her change in posture from tall and animated to slumped and curled in.
One pipsqueak piped up, “No matter what, that award’s never going to be as special to her anymore. It’s ruined.”
Another said, “It’s like watching a balloon get popped.”
And they got my point. They shared times they’d been proud of an achievement and been disrespected
“I read this book that was really hard and someone said they read it in third grade.”
“I got an A on a hard test and someone called me a nerd.”
“My team won a tournament and someone teased me for not playing much.”
“I just don’t get why Kanye would be so rude,” was a common sentiment – and I didn’t have an answer for them.
“Why do we sometimes make fun of or keep away from others who are different from us?” I asked.
“I wish… I wish that Kanye had gone on stage and sang with Taylor Swift instead,” said one idealistic kidlet.
And my final point was set up perfectly. “I know. How awesome would that have been? Even though they have such different music styles, can you imagine what they could accomplish together?”
As the class nodded their agreement, I played the remix below:
(Thank you, Makaio )
And they danced. Together. And encouraged each other’s zany moves.
In the last 30 seconds before dismissal, I paused the music and told the group – acting as a group for the first time – “We have 28 different individuals in this room. We all have different talents. Can you imagine what we can accomplish if we’re willing to work together?”
Cheesy? Perhaps. Unifying? Definitely.
As they drifted off to safety jobs or waited for their buses to be called, they didn’t sit in their seats – they clumped up. Talking. Listening. Engaging.
Schmidties, I’m excited for Monday. It’s going to be a good year.
St. Matt came to school with me on Friday. It was the kiddos’ last day and emotions were running high as limits were being tested.
St. Matt’s come to school with me once before; he chaperoned a field trip to the Franklin Institute with last year’s Angel Class. I assigned him the most cooperative girls of the Angel Class and he spent the day supervising conversations like this:
Kiddo 1: “Mr. Schmidt, can we please go to the human body exhibit?”
St. Matt: “Is that what everyone wants to do?”
Kiddo 2: “I wanted to see sports exhibit – let’s see yours first and then mine if there’s time.”
Kiddo 3: “Sounds like a great plan!”
At the end of the day he gave me a smug, skeptical look. “This is supposed to be hard? They compromised, group hugged and smiled the whole day. I didn’t have to do anything but hold a sweatshirt while they went in the bathroom.”
I rolled my eyes and bided my time. A year later he was back at school – and this year’s class is Team Tiara, just as wonderful but not a smidgen angelic. The kiddos quickly obtained St. Matt’s permission to call him by his first name and took full advantage of smirking and asking things like: “Mrs. Schmidt or Maa-att, would it be okay if I ran this card down to the art teacher?” “Matt, I still have a clipboard in my cubby, where should I put it?”
Each “Matt” was accompanied by a giggle or mischievous grin – infectious and irresistible.
The kiddos had a half-day – mostly consumed by their farewell breakfast and yearbook signing – during which St. Matt was a hot commodity. The whole sixth grade packed the cafeteria with their yearbooks and Sharpies and swapped signatures. Few outside of my homeroom knew who St. Matt was, but that didn’t stop the students from demanding his autograph – some bypassed me to get to him. One kiddo went up to her teacher and reported, “Mrs. Schmidt’s husband looks really young…. He’s cute.” That explains the number of giggling girls and glitter pens waiting for him – can’t say I blame them!
The last hour of the day was for the Schmidties. Our final class meeting. There were tears, laughs, and lots of “do you remember when….” There were reflections: “Can you believe we’re going to be the youngest in the school again?” And a smiling, “Matt, you’re much quieter than Mrs. Schmidt.”
“We balance each other out,” was St.Matt’s diplomatic reply.
Mine was more candid: “I bring the crazy; he brings the normal.”
The kiddos all nodded, sagely and immediately accepting this as true.
There was time for one last enthusiastic singing of “Don’t Stop Believing” and the dismissal announcements came on.
The kiddos’ faces vacillated between summer-excitement and farewell-panic. Hugs were given, received, given again and a few kiddos were gently pushed out of the classroom so they wouldn’t miss their busses.
The door shut behind the last kiddo and I turned to face St. Matt – sitting at my desk with his chin in his hand. “I’m exhausted.”
I nodded and looked around the classroom. It needed to be packed away and I’d barely started. I’d tried taking down posters earlier in a week but a kiddo had protested: “It’s so sad to see our classroom not look like our classroom anymore.” So I’d stopped.
Now I’d run out of excuses and there were only three hours until the faculty party. St. Matt’s engineering nature assessed the state of my cabinets and began to remove items and reorganize them in space-efficient manners.
My non-engineering nature sat down opened presents and re-read the cards my kiddos had given me. Then I responded to e-mails from parents –including a piece of fan mail about St. Matt: “My son so enjoyed meeting your husband. It just made his day.”
St. Matt called me over and asked me to look through a pile and identify what should be saved and what could be tossed. I told him the story of every item in the pile as he reorganized my supply cabinet and uh-huh’d.
The day proceeded in this manner:
Me: “Oh, look at this…” Flitting from project to project.
St. Matt: pragmatic, organized, efficient. “Tiffany, could you please…”
Finally, at five o’clock – now two hours late for the party, St. Matt decided, “You have 15 minutes. Anything that’s not in a cabinet in 15 minutes, we’re throwing away.”
“Okay, let me just pick a song.”
“Well, we need the right song.”
I settled on Warren G’s “Regulators” and got to work. 13 minutes later I was shutting off the lights and shutting the door to room 202, precariously balancing bags of books, gifts from kiddos, the classroom plants and our one surviving fish, Yumberry.
We loaded the car, and St. Matt slumped behind the wheel with tired eyes. I reached over and poked him, “Hey! Guess what? It’s SUMMER! Ready for the party?”
“I’m ready for a nap.”
Lesson’s learned my last day of school:
St. Matt’s cute (well, duh!)
St. Matt’s quieter than me (I knew this already!)
St. Matt’s patient (knew this too)
He’s a better packer (so? I’m a better pack-rat)
And he’s a big WIMP if one 1/2 day with the kiddos tired him out!
1) Hearing my class groan in unison when I pick up the bookmark during read aloud and then beg: “One more page, please!”
2) The bucakaroo who stops by my desk at dismissal each day, waits until he has my attention, makes eye contact and says: “Thanks for today.” And sincerely means it.
3) During scary or intense parts of read aloud, the kiddos unconsciously snuggle closer to their turn & talk partner in a way that is all too innocent and adorable.
4) 26 sixth graders wearing tiaras to support a classmate who’s very ill
5) Returning to the classroom after walking the kiddos to gym and discovering that the straggler in line was leaving a surprise note on my desk telling me why I’m her “favorite teacher ever.”
6) E-mails & visits from the first class of Schmidties who are now in 10th grade. E-mails and visits from last year’s Schmidties every time they read a book they love. E-mail and visits from any former- Schmidty
7) Class meetings.
8) When they get so comfortable they sing – loudly – while working. Even if we don’t have music playing.
9) Monday mornings when they run down the hallway to share something from their Writer’s Notebooks (or holler from the stairwells: “Mrs. Schmidt, wait ‘til you see this…”)
10) When the clock hits 3:00 PM, I tell them it’s time to pack up & they startle and respond, “Already? Seriously?”
I’ll have to wait until September 1st to start drafting a new list – with a new crop of kiddos. I met them today; they seem sweet, small, and nervous – soon enough they’ll be singing.
Tonight I graduated the current crop – mostly dry-eyed and smile-faced. There may be a few tears between now and tomorrow night, but the pull of summer-excitement is fairly irresistible.
Days of hammocks, reading, writing, running, coffee-shopping & procrastinated-projects will keep me twirly.
And all too soon it will be Septemeber 1st – 5 AM wake ups, and a new group of kiddos to love.
But first: picnics, ‘ritas, tennis, fireflies, s’mores, vacations, drive-ins, ice cream & kayaking…
And one last hug from each kiddo at dismissal tomorrow.
Confession: I will meet next year’s crop of kiddos on Thursday morning. I will spend an hour with them and smile and prattle. And I will hate them.
Not for always, but for that morning I will. I won’t want them. I’ll be vehemently wishing they’d stayed in their fifth grade classrooms with the teachers who loved them so I didn’t have to fake a smile and waste an hour away from my own kiddos.
Because there are so few hours left. Thursday night my 08-09 Schmidties will graduate – I’ll dab at tears and read their names with a proud and wistful smile. Friday they have a graduation breakfast and at noon I give them one last hug and send them out to their busses as middle schoolers.
Then I shut my classroom door and bawl. And offer a prayer that middle school is careful with them – or if the other middle schoolers aren’t kind, that they remain kind and supportive to each other. And remember that they’re amazing – no matter who conspires to tell them otherwise or what doubts sprout with hormones in the back of their brains.
But Thursday morning I spend with next year’s class. I know I’ll love them. I know they’ll be phenomenal and amaze me in all sorts of creative and unpredictable ways, but right now they’re usurpers – trying to steal their ways into a heart that’s slightly broken with impending farewells.
I know I’ve done my job. I know that each Schmidty feels loved and valued. I know they’ve grown, matured, and changed since September. They are ready – each and every one of them – for the new challenges that middle school will bring them.
I’m just not ready to say good-bye…
Field Day: n. A school event comprised of various non-traditional sporting competitions; designed to turn formerly angelic students into demonic hellspawn.
It never fails to fail. Field day is a great idea in principle, but in reality it is a mess of sunburns, hurt feelings, and sports equipment.
I love the idea of field day. A chance to celebrate altheticism and being healthy and teamwork. I love that it provides an opportunity to shine for the kiddos with more bodily-kinesthetic than mathematical-logical intelligence.
But in five years of teaching sixth grade I’ve yet to have a year where this day wasn’t a test of every ounce of patience I pretend to have.
It brings out the worst in them. The kiddo who dashed across the classroom on Friday to help a friend clean up his spilled snack is today telling that same friend: “C’mon! Ugh! Just dribble it. It’s not that hard. C’MON – we’re losing! GO FASTER!”
When the thing being dribbled is a football, and it’s being dribbled around a slalom course of traffic cones, it is that hard.
There are the kiddos who dominate. For them, dribbling a football, throwing a frisbee through a hula hoop, relay-racing with tires and playing soccer on scooters is easy.
Then there are the kiddos who… don’t dominate. Either from fear of failure or lack of athletic skills, these are the ones who know they’re going to get dragged during tug-o-war, run over during scooter soccer, trip and tumble during sack races.
Putting both groups on the same team and telling them to work together is a recipe for disaster. Half cringe and half cheer. The louder one group yells, the more the other group cowers.
It’s a mash-up of insecurity and ego – with some I-haven’t-figured-out-how-to-use-my-post-growth-spurt-body-awkwardness sprinkled on top.
But criticism and mean-spirited competitiveness don’t fly with me. I haven’t spent all year creating a group-centered mindset to let them tear each other down because they’re suddenly broken into Blue, White and Maroon teams. They know that when they line up for lunch, they’re all still Schmidties. And when they come back to our classroom tomorrow, they need to be able to look each other in the eye with respect, not regret.
I saw one kiddo freeze today during a ‘team-building’ activity where they had to get all eight of them across the blacktop using only nine random pieces of gym-class-junk. She was teetering on a wooden block, her face a mask of panic as her teammates screeched at her: “DON’T FALL!” and told her to simultaneously crouch and pick up a traffic cone and pass it forward. She wanted to freeze, stabilize… or disappear – but she was “slowing them down’ so she bent, grasped the cone… and lost her balance. Her hand touched the blacktop momentarily, and her team had to start again from the beginning.
Her walk back across the playground, chin tucked down and lips pressed tight, looked like a battle march and I wanted to cry for her.
But I wasn’t giving my kiddos enough credit. When she reached the starting line they hugged her and offered: “You almost had it. You’ll do better next time. We’ve got this.”
And she picked her chin up and smiled – offering a strategy: “Why doesn’t someone with better balance go last? I’m no good at balancing and picking up the equipment. Also, it’s way easier to balance on the block if you turn it the other way.”
~Proud teacher moment~
Flash forward a few hours to Field Day – part 2. Instead of wacky made-up games, it’s now lightning rounds of volleyball. Pitting the six 6th grade classes against each other.
This began out promisingly enough. Both my boys’ and girls’ started off 2-0 for one simple reason: they know each other. They were so quick to say: “You’ve got this one. Great shot. I’ve got your back. Ah, great try! Don’t worry, I’ll get it.”
The other classes bickered and stumbled over each other as they all scrambled for every ball.
My class didn’t end up 5-0. The loses eventually came as the other classes organized – determining their best servers and using them exclusively while my kiddos clung to: “You haven’t served yet? Hey guys, let’s make sure he’s next. Don’t worry, you’ll get the next one over.”
They laughed and chattered and congratulated while their competitors strategized.
And the cheers started. I believe I could live my whole life without needing to hear another chorus of “We Will Rock You.” Or the words, You’ve been schooled! I pwn’d you! You’re going dooooow-oown.
My favorite? When a boy from another class jeered, “Oh, it’s over!” And one of my literal-minded kiddos responded, “No it’s not; we’ve got 8 minutes left in this game.”
At the end of the day we trudged back in the building – exhausted, sweaty and stinky (please, for the love of all things olfactory, remember that Axe and Body Splash are not the same as deodorant). The face paint that had been so crisp and sparkly this morning was now running down cheeks and smeared into eyes. Ponytails were askew, ribbons un-bowed. The kiddos slumped into their seats and rested panting chins on grimy, suntanned arms.
They listened with squirmy-anticipation to the afternoon announcements, anxious to find out which team had ‘won’ the no-prize for having the highest number of points.
As soon as the gym teacher began to read the results: “And in third place, with a total of 1127 points, we had the BLUE TEAM…” The kiddos forgot their exhaustion and hoarse throats and began a new round of chants and cheers. By the time the White Team had been proclaimed the winner, you could hear the jibes & applause echoing from every classroom.
But in room 202, the loudest cheerer of all was quickly copied by the rest of the kiddos, and what he said was colorless: “Go Schmidties! Good job today.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Last night I read Courtney Summer’s Cracked Up to Be. I planned on starting it while I worked out and made it all the way to the basement before I cracked the cover while tying my sneakers. I was absorbed instantly and stumbled my way over the elliptical with my eyes glued to the pages and my hand groping for the buttons on the display. I punched a few of these to set it for hill intervals and turned my total attention to the book.
I didn’t lift my eyes from the words until St.Matt came clomping down the stairs wearing a sleepy but less-than-saintly expression and carrying all our bedding.
“Bruschi peed on me!”
“He did what? Why?”
“I don’t know – I was sleeping!”
“Did you take him out?”
“Well there’s really no reason to now, is there?”
I nodded solemnly and managed to wait until he walked into the laundry room before giggling.
After starting the washer, St.Matt came to stand by the elliptical.
“Good book?” He was really asking: Are you going to going to bed anytime soon?
“Excellent.” which is Tiffany-speak for: I’ll be finishing this book before I even begin thinking about sleep.
“How’s your workout going?”
“Good, it seems really easy today. I’ve been on for –”
I lifted the book to check the display and saw it flashing 00:00. I hadn’t hit start. This is why I need wait until after I get on the elliptical to crack the cover a book.
“I’ve been on for 31 pages,” I answered him as I pressed the start button.
I stayed on until I hit page 97, then I had to get off because it was too hard to breathe. Not because I was tired (although I bet I was by that point – I just wasn’t paying attention). I couldn’t breathe because I was crying, because all the air had been sucked out of the room.
Before I go any further, I want to say I think this book should be required reading for all high schoolers and all high school parents. It’s only fair to warn you, you won’t all like what you read, but it’s realistic and honest.
I wandered upstairs to the couch to finish the book – stopping periodically to take some deep breaths and unclench my tension tightened hands. I wanted/ want to save Parker – to save every child like her. And Summer’s honest writing doesn’t allow the reader to keep a safe emotional distance from Parker’s pain.
When I finished reading my chest was tight and my abs hurt from sobs. I had to focus on the inhales and exhales and tell myself: it’s just a story, it’s not real.
Except, for a lot teens – it is. Maybe not Parker’s exact story, but the sense of identity tied to perfection is an overwhelming and impossible reality.
Cracked Up to Be was both the ideal and an awful book to read the night before portfolio conferences with my class. In my district, students attend their spring parent-teacher conference, which focuses on identifying their strengths and weaknesses and setting a few, specific academic goals for them work on in the final semester.
Can you imagine an experience more anxiety-inspiring than walking into a room where your parents and teacher are going to discuss your strengths and weakness – and expect you to participate?
With Parker fresh in my mind, all I wanted to do was give each of my kiddos a hug, say: “You’re amazing, you’re loved, and I’m so proud of you.”
While the actual conferences did comprise of more than those sentiments — I did, after all, have twenty minutes with each kiddo — I hope they all left knowing those three things. Because they are, every one of them, amazing, loved, and impressive. I hope that if they ever enter into a Parker-type-period, they remember this and remember no matter how flawed they feel or what mistakes they’ve made, they’re still amazing, loved, and I’m still proud of them.
There’s a reason I have the following Emerson quote hanging on the door of classroom so it’s the last thing the kiddos see before leaving each day:
Tomorrow is a new day;
No matter what happens on any given day, I truly expect the kiddos to come back the next one and impress me again.
Because they are so amazing, so loved, and I’m so proud of them.
Today was dark and gloomy. And a half day for the kiddos. I decided that since Mother Nature was cooperating and it is Poetry Month, we’d study Poe’s The Raven.
I shut the blinds and killed the lights. Turned up the volume of the recording I have of Basil Rathbone reading the poem in a delightfully British accent. Would it be too scary? I watched the kiddos closely for cues.
Not scared, the kids were spellbound. They listened. We discussed. They asked to listen again. Who am I to deny them poetry pleasure? I hit play and ducked out of the room to visit the teacher across the hall and borrow her freakishly realistic fake raven: complete with feathers and beady eyes. I stepped back into the room and most of the kiddos didn’t even look up from their copies of the poem.
I walked over to one kiddo who was concentrating particularly hard: forehead leaned against the edge of his desk as he studied the poem in his lap. Holding a finger to my lips for the sake of his smiling desk neighbors, I placed the bird on his desk. When he shifted to turn the page, his shocked double-take was quite comical.
I repeated this to great effect with three other students. The kiddos weren’t really scared, just startled and amused. When the poem ended, they begged to write their own scary poems. Being the selfless teacher that I am, I agreed to let them learn, practice their writing skills, and share the results.
Then it was noon and time for them to leave.
I had the classroom to myself and four hours to put a dent in a Everest-sized pile of grading. I looked at the pile and sighed:
Remember that dark and gloomy day? Ten minutes after the last bus it turned a lot darker and a LOT gloomier. And then came the lightning. The building-shaking thunder. The rain so loud I couldn’t hear the showtunes I’d turned on.
All that fear I’d worried about inspiring in my students – it must have been on delay, because I found myself terrified; irrationally, embarrassingly quaking in the middle of my classroom. I turned on all the lights, and turned the showtunes up louder, singing along in a quavery voice and fighting the urge to duck under my desk and cower.
And then IT happened.
I may have squealed a little bit and shot a horrified glance at the model bird before realizing that it was only the teacher across the hall asking if I wanted to go to lunch.
I made her take back the bird before I agreed.