Two students hunted me down at the door early this morning asking for large construction paper. I typically turn down these requests: money in the budget is tighter than I could ever imagine and if I say yes to one student or teacher, then there's no limit to how many requests I will receive from the other 500-600 people in the building. I was feeling generous this morning and told them to meet me in the classroom and I would see what I could do for them. One of the girls came up, clutching an envelope that said "donations", and asked for the biggest piece of paper I had. She wanted to make sure that there was enough space for every kid in the 7th grade to sign, and it had to be perfect. I asked her if there was anything else I could do for her, and she thought maybe markers might help.
There was one other thing she needed, but she didn't know if it was something I would have in the art room. She needed to know what you are supposed to say to your best friend when her father has just died. I was not expecting to have this sort of a loaded question asked of me at 7:30 in the morning, and I wasn't sure exactly how to respond right away. It's so hard being a kid. Dealing with death as an adult is hard enough, but we often forget that kids going through these things are experiencing them for the first time, and that they have no idea how to react or to cope.
I was the same age as these girls when my step mother died, and I didn't know then what was acceptable to say either. I remember clearly that when I went back to school a part of me wanted to tell anyone and every one who would listen, so they would understand why the littlest things would make me sad. A C+ on my progress report made me act out in homeroom, not because I cared at all about my grades, but because the last time I had a bad grade and was on the receiving end of the lecture of doom from my dad, my stepmom was the one who gave me a juicebox, cleaned up my tears, and reassured me that everything would be ok. Seeing another girl's brand new white Keds (it was the 90's, afterall) made me aloof and distracted while my friends were in a deep discussion about yesterday's Regis and Kathie Lee show, because my stepmom had given me the same sneakers in my Easter basket the year before.
Going on a school trip to Montreal was the worst, because it had been my stepmom who had adamantly fought both of my parents for my permission to go on the trip, and had ultimately paid for it and signed the permission slip herself. She had always been my biggest and proudest supporter, and now I felt as though I were all alone. None of my teachers or other adults in my life had any idea that I was going through any of this. It was on that trip that I finally broke down and cried for the first time, on the floor in the corner of a hotel room, in front of almost total strangers. That was the day that I made some of my best friends. In fact I had a good cry on the phone with one of them just yesterday, even though it is 18 years later. I don't remember if she had any idea what to say to me then, but by now she always does, and she typically will call and say it about 5 minutes before I even realize that I needed her to.
I may be an adult now (even though I usually still feel I am only pretending to be), but I still don't always have the words to say or know what is appropriate behavior in any given situation. Even so, I am honored to have been asked such a question this morning. The curriculum may be designed to cover the state Curriculum Frameworks in visual art, but as teachers, we are in a unique position to be able to teach kids about life, at a time when they need it the most. Middle school is among the toughest of experiences, and kids can never have too many "biggest and proudest supporters" pulling for them. I am learning more from these kids every day, and although the circumstances in this case are unpleasant, I am thankful for the reminder that while kids are here with us for 6 hours, there is no end to the list of other things that are on their minds and affecting their thoughts and actions every day. When it all comes down to it, getting the subject content across is so important, but it's the lessons that are learned in between that make the biggest difference in the future.