It was always clear that the Grinch stole Christmas in an attempt to find something good for himself, even though he felt he didn’t deserve it. When he was able to see beauty, and then to participate in joy by saving the stolen presents, he heart, and his strength grew way out of proportion. Really, the strength of ten Grinches, plus two? It was a rhyme-satisfying exaggeration.
Or was it?
It is no secret that I have gotten off to a tough start to this school year. 48 days completed, just over a quarter of the school year, and I feel like I am still setting up routines, still teaching expected behaviors, and not at all teaching content. Though I Grinch-like feel that I have not actually earned the right to it, I want to walk in to a well-run class full of 10 year olds acting like ten year olds and not like cynical gang initiates.
In the midst of the despair, M stepped up. For reasons all his own, he walked into the room with an aura of effort around him and worked hard to monitor his behavior and focus on learning. He raised his hand, he excitedly shouted out answers, he rushed to get in line, he asked questions. And this fog of effective effort was slightly contagious so that, even though, yes, there were two physical fights and a whole lot of talking back and ignoring work, there were these blissful moments of teaching and, dare I say it, learning happening in our chaotic classroom.
So, yesterday morning I took some time before school started and fished out the fun sea creature shaped papers left over from a project last year and wrote a short note to M and three of his fellow do-gooders. They were short notes to the effect of “Hey, I noticed your effort. You are fabulous and getting more so every day.” (Not at all those words, of course. I used teacher words like “you’re growing your brain” and “making great choices” but the intention was “Oh lord, it’s been a craptastic 45 days and I just want to say thank you so much for bringing some light into this dungeon.”)
I left the notes on 4 desks and let them be found.
My first surprise was when K started walking around the room showing off his note, then Y wondered out loud how he might earn such a note. But then, there was M. The boy who has a personal relationship with he principal, he’s spent so much time in the office. The boy who tells others he will beat the tar out of them and they (and I) completely believe he could, and would. The boy who can’t actually sit so his desk is in the back of the room to allow pacing space and who talks to himself near constantly. This boy, who’s “not afraid of anything” quietly picked up his note.
He didn’t smile. He didn’t look toward me. He didn’t share his note. He carefully put it back down on his desk, fished out his Math notebook and sat down to work on the morning problem.
And later, during a Math test that seemed designed to inspire a meltdown of self-confidence resulting in a display of tough-guy disinterest in anything school related, he took his time, he asked clarifying questions, he showed his work.
His motivation grew three sizes that day.
He grew the strength of 10 fourth graders, plus two.
And I learned, relearned, the lesson that we all need to feel like we deserve Christmas. We need to be noticed and appreciated for returning what we stole, for fixing what we broke. And we need to be a part of a community that lets us back in after we have intentionally caused harm, with the knowledge that we didn’t really want to cause harm but to be noticed.
Thanks M, again.