This is an excerpt from my latest book, “Good Karma 2”. It’s from the chapter titled, “Eli-Jah“
“Kids don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
That quote was shared with me on the very first day that I met the Executive Director at Great Oaks. One day years later, his words proved to be correct.
This day started like any other day. I arrived at the building at about 6:15, and proceeded to print the materials needed for class. At 7 am, just like clockwork, the first students started to come into the building. They had a simple ritual. Grab breakfast, have a seat, take out a book and begin reading silently. For me, the task was to keep them quiet. Admittedly, most days was not a success, but today I didn’t have to do much. Most of them had no interest in talking this morning. I had no idea why.
Something is up or someone is being sneaky, I thought to myself. I didn’t want to approach the situation with negativity but, if there is something that 7th graders love to do, it is talk to each other when they are instructed not to do so.
I didn’t force the issue but I was looking for the reason. I instructed one student to collect the trash and another to dump the milk cartons.
“Alright, everyone stage 3 in the next 10 seconds. Go!”
All of the students moved, but most moved apathetically. My newly formed teacher antennas went on high alert. “some thing up, I know it!”.
We transitioned downstairs. After the students put their belongings in their lockers, we entered the class room and began our Do Now. This was something that we did every day.
One student was missing. I’d like to think that I noticed his absence because my teacher alertness was always at 100%, but in reality he was pretty hard to miss. He’s a pretty big kid. (Most of the kids look more like 10th graders that 7th graders these days.)
“Good morning Rider University!” ( My homeroom is named after my alma mater Rider University) I proclaimed.
“Good Morning Mr. Barnes!” They replied in unison, still apathetic.
I began to introduce my lesson without any direct dealing with whatever issue they were having today. Although I wanted to address the situation, I choose not to. Students all across the country lose months of learning time due to the few minutes that they spend off task daily. I chose to not waste time at this moment. Rider University had a habit of wasting this time. I wasn’t going to open Pandora’s Box just yet.
Walking to my doc cam to reveal today’s lesson to the class, I noticed the missing kid in the hallway. His face was filled with tears. At this point I knew that I would have to open Pandora’s Box. Still, I tried to fight it.
“Are you ok?”
He sniffled and tried to speak, but no words came out.
“What’s the matter?” I asked again more fervently.
“I miss Elijah” he said sobbing.
“Listen. Take 2 minutes, go to the bathroom and clean yourself up. Then come back to class. We’ll talk about it when you get back. Ok?”
I nudged him towards the bathroom. Truthfully speaking, I didn’t know what to do. I was instructing this class, even if they were less than enthusiastic. When he returned to the class I took the gloves off.
“Obviously, there’s something going on. Someone tell me what’s up.” Everyone gazed around the room waiting for someone else to be the voice of reason. (It’s funny how we shape that habit at such a young age) the young lady in the front row was the first to speak up.
“One of our friends died and that’s why er’ body sad and stuff.” She mumbled without even picking her head up.
I took off my suit jacket and say on the desk in the first row, third column. Pandora’s Box was open.
“Before I explain myself to you guys, I want you to realize something. Having to bury a friend who was killed while you’re in 7th grade is not normal. It may happen often and some people might say that it’s normal, but it’s not. Eyes sweltering up as memories of Jah’lil flashed through my mind, I continued.
“I’m honest with you guys. You know I just buried my mother. You know that a year ago my best friend was murdered in the same neighborhood that some of you live in. Dealing with death is not easy. You probably feel like, you don’t want to do anything and that life is all bad. You probably feel like you can’t do anything right now. I know that feeling. I too feel that way, but listen to me when I tell you this and you may not want to hear it but it’s honest: that pain will never go away…”
I paused trying to coach myself on the words that I was breathing to them. (Was I too blunt? I didn’t think so. They’re living in an environment where friends are murdered in the 7th grade. There is no such thing as too blunt.)
“…But you will get better at dealing with it. Every day I wake up, the first thing I think about is my mom, and I know that pain will never go away, but I’ve gotten better at dealing with it; one day at a time. You too will get better at dealing with it. This is an important moment where you’re going to learn to push yourself. You have to keep going! We have to push ourselves to keep each other together. We have to practice being strong, and I am here to help you do just that.”
I raised up off the desk and began to put my suit jacket back on.
“That’s why we are going to deal with the pain, we’re not going to quit. We are going to college and we’re going to be successful there. And although we’re hurting on the inside and still in pain, we are still going to do math! You understand?”
“Yes” was the solemn reply.
“Begin reading at top of the page. Let’s get started.”
We continued class. Rider University had never been more focused or attentive as they were that day. I think they knew that I cared.