"Student # 20" (December 2015/January 2016)

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By Bradford Green

Much like the sixth graders I am blessed to teach, I too, was once eleven. It was 1974 and I was in the sixth grade. My father had passed in 1967, and my mother was newly remarried to a wonderful man, George Geanakos. He passed a month after they married of a heart attack in November of that year. For me, it was a troubled time and a lonely one to boot. The world was different back then. It was better in some ways, yet it was not as open as it is today. School was especially painful for me, especially as I assumed all other kids had fathers and that I was the odd anomaly.
Flash forward to today. I am a teacher, but that too is different. The world of data, Venn diagrams, constant differentiation, meetings and the rush to do well on MCAS were not part of my world in 1974 as a student. These things did not enter our world in force until the mid-1980's. When I took this job, I little knew what I was in for. I thought it was going to be all about the academics – my true love of literature and writing would be my gift to the students. But things happen.
Last month, a boy I taught last year for whom I felt great affection due to his bright mind and quirky personality, walked into my room at 7:20 in the morning. He was supposed to be in the cafeteria eating breakfast or outside with the other students until 7:30. But there he was, hand outstretched, his cellphone facing me as he walked across my classroom floor towards me. His father had just sent him an alarming text and decided that life had become too difficult. I walked the boy to the main office, tried to collect myself, and wondered about what had really happened. About an hour later, the boy - "student number 20" - was brought to the office to get the bad news. I was lucky that teachers came to get me. As I entered the office, I noted the many adults surrounding him, adults who were simply looking on. I walked to the boy and hugged him closely. "A bad day, kiddo. A bad day." I kissed his forehead as his relatives looked on. I attended the service. We talk often.
Looking back on that day, it seems to me that nothing happens by mistake. I was there, reaching through my own years to be with him in a way that was not possible in 1974 - a different world, I guess. It was a gift he gave me, imbuing my life with purpose and contextualizing the data meetings, the insipid, uninspired constant testing, and the general drama that attends middle schools. I couldn’t be more grateful to be a teacher - especially on that day. It is a great calling!

Bradford Green teaches English at the Pickering Middle School in Lynn.