She sat down in the student desk across from me, carefully, her face resigned and head erect as her eyes met mine, and laid one work-worn hand over the other as if to steady herself. She didn’t fit comfortably there, but she emanated the homespun grace of someone in the habit of making the best of where she was. I waited expectantly, and she said, “Jim. My son’s Jim.” Her chest rose and fell slowly with the steadying breath she took and resolutely released.
A freckled face danced into my mind, leaning around the doorway to my classroom, an infectious smile pulling the rest of his growing-too-fast body inside. “Tweety!” he barked appreciatively, eyeing my slippers for the day and swinging one arm around in a thumbs-up as he rubbed the other over his fresh-buzzed head and plopped unceremoniously into his chair. He sat for a moment, then leaned back, dug deep in the front left pocket of his Wranglers for a 4-inch nub of pencil, and promptly stuck the eraserless end in the side of his mouth.
I grinned and shuffled through the papers on my desk. “It’s so good to finally meet Jim’s mom!” Finding his clipped set, I looked up to find her lips drawn slightly and her shoulders squared. “Your son is downright charming!”
Her eyes widened momentarily as she held mine, searching my face warily, waiting. I continued, a bit more seriously, “His conflict essay was one of the finest, most honest descriptions of man vs nature I received all term. Most 15-year-olds write lovelorn prose heavy on the syrup and woe, but his was concrete, fresh, and full of description. I was riveted as I wondered how he was going to get out from under that feeder with a herd of cows hungrily stamping around him in the sucking mud. I was worried about his leg. I could feel the isolation of the predawn morning and time stretching before anyone would notice he hadn’t come in for breakfast. My body actually got cold and I found myself clenching my hands and rubbing them on my pants to warm them. Amazing writer you have there.”
For a moment I wondered if I had misspoken as the eyes into which I had been grinning began to fill. It’s easy to do in parent-teacher conferences. There’s a lot of emotion coming in as the force of irritating days spent trying to garner and hold the attention of 8th graders who’d much rather be doing anything but study parts of speech meets the percolating energy of frustrated parents who don’t know what happens when their kids are away all day but get drug in semiannually to be told that they’re not spending enough time helping with homework. Like a chemistry lab with unknown constituents, the reactions are myriad.
I began to stumble over an explanation of my use of “finally,” thinking to salve any mistaken note of disapproval, then remembered an exchange between Jim and Mr. Gale across the hall earlier in the week. “JIM! Less time poking Jen with that stupid pencil and more time listening! We covered the whole last half of the Civil War today and I don’t think you heard anything!” The only response was the sound of Jim’s boots thud-sliding against the hallway tile in his characteristic hands-jammed-in-pockets, slide-heelclunk shuffle. I paused and silently looked in his mother’s waiting eyes, then began again.
“Jim is one of the most real kids I’ve ever met, and I enjoy every moment he’s in my class,” I said quietly. After a moment, her hand loosed itself from the other on the desk between us and stole apologetically up to her eyes. “Don’t hear that often here,” she responded finally, as if tamping something down inside. Out of respect for the unwelcome dampness on her cheek, I restrained an urge to reach across the desk and lay my hand on hers.
“He’s a fine boy, and I imagine he’s a loyal and hardworking son. You have every reason to be proud. He’s also a fine writer. He seems likely to continue the tradition of raising cattle,” I trailed off quizzically, and she nodded once, half proud, still half wary. “Most of us do more than one thing,” I commented bracingly. “I’ll send him home with a book of cowboy poetry. I think it might appeal to him.”
It was a long time ago, but she and Jim have been on my mind lately. I am a failed teacher, chased away by the spectre of standardized tests and administrative quotas, but yesterday I returned to sit in a desk that didn’t fit across from people who spend their days with my growing-too-fast children. I’m still tempted to steel myself, because I have one or two who carry gnawed pencil nubs in their pockets. I’m paying the price for insisting that I’m more concerned with the content of their character than the letters on the grade sheet or the courses on the transcript, because I seldom breeze through the semiannual court proceedings without facing a few sighs.
Sometimes, however, a short man leans forward over the desk between us and tells me that he doesn’t know what he’d do without my welder in his class of 32 initiates, a droopy-pantsed freckle-face who stops any time and takes a moment to demonstrate a how-to to a stumped student who will go to him even before the teacher. Sometimes a thin-faced woman smiles with one cheek and tells me that if anyone can figure out how to get everyone on board with a project, my gangly grinner will.
I’m not likely losing any more sleep than Jim’s mom did, because I know what I’m doing and I know it’s right enough. I’m proud of my kids. It’s nice, however, when I find an advocate at the trial.