Tonight was Open House at Tween’s elementary school, our last elementary school Open House ever.
One year ago we toured Tween’s class in under five minutes – his classwork hardly represented, his teacher avoiding eye contact, my stomach in knots. We moved quickly from his 4th grade classroom to the 5th grade classrooms. We closely inspected work by kids we didn’t know; we watched how the teachers interacted with students and parents; we talked with parents about their child’s experience.
At home I began composing a letter to the school principal along these (much abbreviated) lines: “Tween has had a difficult year in Room 3 as he and the teacher have not achieved the best ‘fit.’ We toured the 5th grade classrooms and noticed this about Room 4’s teacher and that about Room 6’s teacher, all good things just maybe not the best for Tween, while Room 5’s teacher greeted him by name with a warm hug and a compliment. We know we’re not supposed to request a teacher, but we need a win: please place Tween in Room 5.”
Two weeks later, Principal announced that Room 5 Teacher would be moving to the middle school. Ouch.
So we prayed and prayed some more. One more year like 4th grade would put Tween in jeopardy. Day after day he came home deflated and defeated, intimidated by his teacher, our bright boy telling us he was “obviously not smart.”
First day of the 2014-15 school year, this dapper-dressed man with a great big smile opened the door. Without having previously met any of his students, he shook their hands one-by-one and welcomed them by name into the classroom. The year is almost over and he hasn’t yet stopped welcoming his students.
Tonight Tween directed us to his desk topped with piles of his work. Atop the stack sat a survey about their experience this year. Favorite subject? Reading (of course). Most improved subject? Math (Yes! He has persevered and proven to himself that he can both work hard and succeed – a triumph!). Favorite activity? Science camp (no surprise). What will he remember most about 5th grade? “I will always remember my best teacher ever: Mr. Mathews.”
Cue the mommy waterworks. He loves his teacher, and the feeling seems to be mutual.
This dear man could hardly accept my thanks as he extolled the wonders of his class. They are sweet, and smart, and hardworking, yes, but he has clearly honored and encouraged them and steadily endeavored to bring out their best version of themselves.
Case in point: last week Tween gave his all on a science test-prep packet. Long packet + slow processing speed = frustrated Tween and incomplete homework. Still working on it early Friday, Grumpy Tween slammed the packet on the desk and declared: “I will just tell him I left it here!”
Commence parent-child conversation about honesty and lying, hard work, and the reason for his 504 plan which allows accommodations for situations exactly like this. He shoved the packet in his backpack.
Imagine my surprise as I unpacked his Friday folder to discover a note saying he had not turned in said packet. When Tween returned from baseball practice, I asked him to read the note aloud, and then explained that he’d be writing a note of apology. He burst into tears, terrified that exposing his dishonesty would cause his teacher to stop trusting him.
He wrote an email, not excusing but explaining best he could his frustration with the workload, the peer pressure at play, his own disorganization at having left the packet in his backpack in the breezeway and not in his binder where it belonged. “I am sorry that I lied under pressure. I should have been stronger than that.”
One day later – on a teacher’s Saturday at that – Tween received a graceful response, acknowledging the courage required to come clean and requesting that Tween live into the bravery required to tell the truth up front, whether to this teacher or any other. Tween read the response silently and immediately typed back-hit send:
“Thank you for replying. After I wrote this I thought that you would get mad at me and not trust me. Once I read this I felt reassured that you are the best teacher I’ve ever had. Thanks again!”
Tween has learned a lot this year, reading stacks of books, practicing math concepts, delving into the scientific method, even designing and printing a new invention on a 3D printer (seriously, how cool is that?). Those lessons will hold him in good stead as he moves on to middle school.
However, he has also learned lessons that will carry him far in life: saying sorry, facing failures, supporting friends, hard work, persistence, courage, laughter, positive attitude, even (dare I say?) the benefits of tidying up (whether he’ll ever overcome his embodiment of the Absent-Minded Professor remains to be seen).
I’ve felt weepy-silly this year as we run our last lap around elementary school. Tween can’t wait for middle school – no anxiety, all anticipation. He is ready for the next adventure. And tonight my heart overflows with gratitude for the gift of this teacher, this year, this miracle.
Thank you, Mr. Mathews!