The Assignment

 

Minutes before the final bell, Miss Hailee handed out a sheet to her third-grade students. The wide-ruled copies held only the heading I am looking forward to summer vacation… She walked down the rows of desks and passed one to each student.

“Class, this year we have been learning to journal. On this sheet I want you to describe how you are feeling about your summer vacation and why you feel that way. Use the adjectives from the word search I am handing out to describe your thoughts. Use your best handwriting. Write complete sentences. Turn these papers in tomorrow, first thing. There will be no letter grade. I will be reading them to see how well you express your thoughts.”

The students stopped fidgeting and grabbed their backpacks. They stuffed the sheet into it along with their pencils and corrected papers. The dismissal bell rang. The third-graders scrambled for the door, talking to each other about their summer plans.

Miss Hailee watched them leave. She clearly enjoyed her assignment. She could tell that the eight and nine-year old children enjoyed being in school and that they loved their teacher. And she loved the untainted boyishness of the boys and the unabashed girlishness of the girls. These children expressed emotions openly and without guile. Their personalities hadn’t yet become compartmentalized. Their imaginations, like potter’s clay, could be easily shaped by careful hands. They are animated, responsive and for the most part, well-behaved. Apart from having to correct them for talking in class, passing notes, not raising their hand to answer and having to lecture the boys teasing the girl who said she was a horse and whinnied and ate the white pasty glue and having to lecture Laura about the glue, discipline was minimal. Teaching them was a joy, for they were teachable.

When the last student was out the door, she erased the black board and pushed her chair into the desk. She gathered up her teaching plan and the student assessment sheets for the Check System. She placed them in a pouch and slung the pouch over her shoulder. She walked out of the classroom and headed to the parking lot and home.

At First Bell the next morning not one student was tardy. Their papers were in their hands being waved like flags. The chance to talk about their upcoming summer vacation had them wriggling in their chairs, one leg on and one leg off their chairs.

Miss Hailee brought the class to order. “Please sit straight ahead with both legs on your chairs. We only have a short day today so I need your full attention. I will now collect your papers.”

She walked down each row and each student handed her their paper. She looked at each to make sure it had the student’s name on it. The papers, backpack-crumpled and smeared with erasures, were filled out.

“Class, today we will talk about the math you will be doing in fourth grade. But first we will do language and reading. After lunch you will present your science project to the class. We will now have our morning meeting.”

Miss Hailee reminded the students of the class rules using a poster board created by the students. She then asked them “What did you do well as a researcher for your science project?” After hearing several responses, she asked, “What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?” Everyone answered that question at once. As things quieted down, she asked the students if they had good news or bad news to share with the class. Several said the good news was summer vacation. Another said they have a new dog. Another said his birthday was in July. A girl shared that she wrote the bad news in her paper. Miss Hailee told her she would read her paper in private and would talk to her about it with her in private tomorrow. Then came the Word of the Day: question.

After lunch the students shared their science projects with the class. Miss Hailee asked each presenter “What questions did you have during your preparation? When all was said and done Miss Hailee praised the class for their work.

At 12:50 the dismissal bell rang. “I will be reading your papers tonight. Tomorrow, your parents will be bringing in treats for our last day of school. I’m sure you will be on your best behavior.” The students filed out.

Again, Miss Hailee watched them leave. Again, she erased the black board and pushed her chair into the desk and gathered up her teaching plan. On her way out the door she stopped at the school’s office and handed in the student assessment sheets she had completed. Putting her feet up and reading the student’s papers was on her agenda that night.

 

That evening Miss Hailee ate the chicken pot pie she had prepared the last weekend. She poured herself a glass of wine and sat down on the couch with her feet up and the student’s papers on her lap. She began, recalling the face of each student as she read. She expected positive happy thoughts in these papers. The first paper did not disappoint:

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… I play baseball with my friends. Dad and mom said that me and Bill are going to a Cubs game. Yeah! Salty popcorn is the best. Summer is the best. Dad gives me purple popsicles. They make a big mess on my shirt. I play outside until mom calls me.

The happy life-affirming thoughts continued. The students wrote of Great America, playing soccer, trips to see relatives, trips to national parks, friends, fun in the sun, family plans, family picnics, church picnics, camp, fireworks, nature hikes, riding bikes, swimming… They had used the adjectives from the word search!

But there were several papers whose writers were not looking forward to summer. There was in their forward glance an admixture of disappointment and pain caused by things imposed on them and a faint tinge of hope in … the plans to make do?

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… me mom and my sister are going camping. Mom did not tell my dad. She said dad has to work. Mom says she has to get away. We will have smores and go swiming in the lake and have a fire at night. The fire makes me sleepy. I don’t like moskeetoos. They are nasty. I wish dad could come camping. Mom said it was better this way.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… mom said I will have a new baby sister. I am so excited. I told Elise. She said that her mom had a baby but her mom said no to the baby. I will let Elise play with my new sister this summer. Elise is my best friend. She is sad. I will make her happy.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… not much. me and Todd will be moving to a small house with mom. Dad has a boyfriend. His name is Phil. Mom and me and Todd is surprised. I will ride my red bike a lot with Todd.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… it is hot. The hot makes me sweaty. Dad said people make it so hot. This makes me angry. I play outside to it gets dark. When I come in I have chocolate ice cream. Mom says I am stinky. She gives me a cold shower before bed. I sleep with the windows open. My room is cool. Dad snores loud.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation…no I am not. Mom and dad said divorce. I know what that means. Mom and dad live in two places like Anns mom and dad. I have to visit dad now. My summer is ruined.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… I am going to visit grandpa and grandma for summer. They have a farm in Iowa. Mom said that when we come back she will be a man. Me and dad question mom. Dad said mom is confused. Summer with grandpa and grandma will be fun. Grandpa will take me on his big green tractor. Grandma said she will make me a fruit pie. They have noisy dogs. I want to stay with them forever.

 

“Oh, lord,” Miss Hailee thought as she put her face in her hands. “How will these children cope? The assignment imposed on these kids by their broken families will break these kids. What can I say to the kids tomorrow?” She wept. “I have tried so hard to give these kids the best of me. To give them the means to take on life. After this summer some of them will return inhibited, anxious, hard, resistant, overwhelmed and, …unteachable.”

These were adjectives she never wanted to apply to her students. Outside the classroom all of the inherited forms and distinctions were being taken away from children. The child’s reference point – their family, the symbol of stability and sense – was being torn up and reassembled into nonsense. The traditional words and signs used to make up a child’s conceptual framework were being converted into gibberish. And teachers were forced to be enablers and accomplices and wardens of the claptrap.

In her imagination Miss Hailee prescribed an Emotional Bank Account poster for the parents. She would show them the deposits and withdrawals they make into their kid’s lives. She would make them read it out loud on the last day. And although she knew about the swift and exacting judgment of political correctness, she did not fear political correctness. But she did begin to imagine repercussions on her students if she held their parents publicly accountable. The reality was that she could do nothing to affect change to the parent’s withdrawals and deposits into their child’s emotional bank account. Inside her classroom she could be to her students a symbol of continuity and of all that is good in the world.

With a yawn and a soul cried out, she retired. Day was gone. Night was upon her. In a matter of hours, she would be standing before them with words. But not with reassuring words that things will be all right this summer. She could only offer disconnected affirming teacher words.

The First Bell of the last day of school rang. The students found their seats but not their composure. They were ready-set-go for summer. Anticipation had their hands and feet constantly moving. Miss Hailee let them have space for the bubbling over excitement as long as they respected her and each other.

That final morning Miss Hailee talked about what they had learned during the school year. She went on to praise the students for their eagerness to learn and their hard work. She did this while walking along the counter where each student’s remaining graded papers and the posters and plaster of Paris bowls the kids had made during art time were neatly stacked. She reminded them to take these things when they leave.

The first mother arrived outside the door and peeked in. The girl in the third row squealed when she saw her mom. Soon there were three more moms at the door. Then ten, then twelve, then twenty moms and some dads waiting to come in. Miss Hailee opened the door and said “Welcome, come in. We are a full house today.”

Desk were arranged for the treats the moms had brought. The kids tried to show their moms their pile of school work as the mom tried to set out the treats they had brought. The hubbub was expected and relished by Miss Hailee. The school year was ending with merriment. The sugar in the treats made sure of that.

With the mom’s and dad’s and kid’s mouths full of cupcake, candy corn and cookies, Miss Hailee spoke.

“I am very proud of these students. They worked hard. They behaved well. They achieved much. I have high hopes for them going into fourth grade. Behind you are your child’s schoolwork and art projects for you to take home. I have included a list of books for summer reading.” Looking at each of the students Miss Hailee said, “Your parents can read these books to you and there are some you can read yourself with some help. Looking at the reading list she continued.

“On the list I have included an illustrated retelling of Treasure Island for children, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden. Each one is adapted for young readers. And I’ve included a story I have authored and had illustrated: Summer at Sad Shores, a Livingston Family Vacation Adventure.”

Miss Hailee looked around at the anchor charts the class had used during the year. With last words to present, she again looked at the faces of her third-graders. “The word for the summer is hope. I want you to look up the meaning of the word hope. I am hoping that you will find hope in your summer reading.”

With that she said, “Have a great summer everyone.” The parents and children were free to go.

Before Marta and her mother left, Miss Hailee pulled them aside and asked them if she could talk to them in private. Marta’s mother, a woman with dark bags under teary eyes, looked deeply troubled, as if more bad news would devastate her. She did break down in tears out in the school yard where the three of them talked.

Miss Hailee had learned from Marta’s paper that her father had been arrested and was in jail. Miss Hailee understood why Marta had become detached and listless the last two weeks of school. But what could she offer them? She wanted to deal with each student familiarly but the established protocol was to shunt any “issues” over to the school’s counselor.

“I can’t imagine the weight that has been placed on both of you.”

Seeing the crucifix Marta’s mother was wearing around her neck and looking around to make sure no one was around, Miss Hailee spoke. “Listen, what I am about to say has nothing to do with school or with me as Marta’s teacher. I say this as a friend. Sometimes …. (Miss Hailee took a deep breath) …Sometimes God allows a heavy burden to be placed on us so that we can feel his hand underneath.”

Marta’s mother, now barely able to speak, replied, “This burden is too much. Marta and me are alone.”

Miss Hailee hugged both of them. “You are not alone. I will be your friend. I will give you my phone number and my email address. Here … “

She wrote them on the back of one of Marta’s papers and handed them to Marta’s mother. “This is not a teacher-parent conference. This is me as your friend and I will help you two through this.” Marta gave Miss Hailee a long hug.

“Thank you, Miss Hailee,” Marta’s mother hugged the teacher.

“Call me Sandra, please.” Miss Hailee hugged her once more.

“Will Marta be able to see her dad often?”

Marta mother wiped her tears from her face. “Yes. “

“That is something you can look forward to this summer, Marta.”

Marta looked up at her teacher, her dark eyes glistening with tears for her mother.

“Has Marta ever ridden a horse?”

Marta looked at her mom who couldn’t speak. “No,” Marta replied.

“Then that is something we can look forward to this summer. My father has a farm with several horses.”

With that the three of them walked around the school building to the parking lot.

At the car Miss Hailee said, “How about a picnic this Saturday and we can talk more. Please call me anytime. You are not alone. Your assignment this summer Marta is to see your dad when you can, ride horses and have picnics.”

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

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