This past week, I was asked by a professor which day was my best day of teaching. I had lots of them, but they usually involve a back story. I ended up trying to give an abbreviated version for the sake of time and it ended up seeming like a very lackluster day. Consequently, below I will tell one of my favorite stories from teaching.
This is the story of a student who, for the sake of anonymity, I will refer to as M. This individual was the most phenomenal auditory learner I’ve ever met. Unfortunately, he was a student whom either society, family, or the school system (or some combination thereof) had failed. He was disinterested, often skipped school, and was consequently failing several of his classes, including mine. One day, he was forcibly removed from my classroom, in handcuffs, by the school resource officer. (To this day I don’t know why he was removed, but it was not anything he did in my class.) Despite his reputation, I felt drawn to him. His cleverness, creativity, and incredible auditory memory fascinated me.
One day, I pulled him aside to make up a quiz that he had missed. I don’t remember why, it honestly may have been because I had run out of copies, but I decided to give him the quiz orally. I listened carefully to his responses and eerily realized that he was literally repeating entire paragraphs of my own words, from days previously, as easily as though he was reading them off a page. I expressed my surprise at how well he had retained the information. He shrugged. I told him that his incredible ability would serve him very well in college, where grades depended heavily on test scores and not on classwork. He had been told that before. I paused and then offered him a proposition: if he was able to get a B on his tests, I would exempt him from the classwork assignments he missed. His face lit up and he was visibly excited, more so than I had ever seen him. “I’m going to go home and study so hard. I’m definitely going to get a B on the next test.”
My favorite memory of this student was something so subtle and simple that it might seem silly if you didn’t know the whole story. M had missed the midterm exam and had also missed the opportunity to make up the exam during the make-up days. Who knows why… maybe he was absent, maybe he forgot. At this point, he was about to leave the high school where I worked to transfer to an alternative school, so maybe the midterm didn’t take high priority on his agenda.
We arranged that he would make up the midterm during 6th period, which was my planning period. When he arrived, he had to take a chair down off the desk because 5th period put them for me. He thought the was easy and breezed through it. He got up and handed it in, then went back and put his chair back on top of the desk. I smiled to myself because many of my students don’t have enough of the “clean up after yourself” instinct to remember to do something like that. Then, he walked down to the end of the row, where some other student hadn’t put their chair on top of the desk at the end of 5th period, and put that one up too. Then he put up 2 or 3 more neglected chairs. I smiled and said thank you. He smiled, said “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” and left.
Here was a student that had such a hard time caring about school, his grades, his future, etc that he was still in high school after five years. A student whom administration and the school resource officer were relieved to see go to an alternative school. And yet, for some reason, he cared enough to take the extra moment to help me by tidying up, not just his own mess, but that which other students neglected as well.
Maybe I read too far into it. Maybe I needed to. Regardless, I still have the picture, taken with my phone, of the message he left on my white board on his last day in my class. And despite the fact that it pains me to have to forgive his grammatical error, I still smile when I read:
“Your the best teacher ever.”