They arrive at night, unannounced and uninvited, interrupting my sleep. My chest tightens, and I grimace, knowing they will not leave me for days. Their images and their problems come back to me from 19 years of teaching, as real and as troubling as when I first met these students in my classrooms.
Joseph was the youngest of seven boys who had lost their father to cancer. The boys and their mother ran the dairy farm with no help, feeding themselves with the crops they grew and the deer they hunted. Joseph and I had a routine; every morning during recess he would come to me so I could rub hand cream into his calloused, cracked 8-year-old hands.
Gerry was also a farm boy. He had a tough time in 1st grade because he couldn't learn to read. On the playground children called him “stupid.” He believed them and repeated 1st grade. That second year, he sobbed and shook so badly during the first week of school that he had to be taken from the room. The school district tested him and learned he had an IQ of 147 with severe learning disabilities.
Gerry worked with me in the gifted program for five years. We worked on his strengths: his fascination with machines, his ability to fix anything, and his interest in U.S. history. During an assembly a speaker would never know how this child struggled to learn, because Gerry remembered everything and asked questions that helped the other students conceptualize the message given. In high school now, Gerry does not fit into any easy category, and I worry that the fast-paced system will not meet his special needs.
Other images come, too: the children who never had the chance to reach their potential. Katie, who maintained an A average even though she missed 80 days of 4th grade, was still a high-achieving student when she died of leukemia at age 10. Jennifer died in 10th grade of a gun accident, leaving only her picture in the paper to remind me of the feisty 4th grader I had known.
Anna haunts me the most. She is in her 20s now, but I remember her as an 8-year-old with long brown braids and blue-speckled frame glasses. The middle child of five, she was not the shining star of her family. When the school nurse informed Anna's mother that Anna was having trouble hearing, her mother sneered, “She is already ugly enough with those glasses; she will not wear a hearing aid.”
Anna often acted out in class, and I would ask her to stand in the hall until I could speak with her. One day the principal saw Anna in the hall and asked for an explanation. She replied, “This is Miss Carney's special time with me. We have a talk every day.” By 3rd grade, she had already learned to manipulate adults to get what she needed.
Lying awake at 3 a.m., I try to think of my successful students: Laurie, who wants to become the first woman president, and Jeremy, who is married and has just started a car repair business. But my students with the largest needs quickly return. They cry out to me, the child who is teased because he stutters, or the one who gives up trying to learn, saying she doesn't care so her failures won't hurt as much.
Teachers don't pass students on—we accumulate them. We worry over them, wonder how they're doing, and sometimes cry for them long after they've left our classrooms. It's part of our job.
Pat Carney-Dalton is a Teacher for Souderton Area School District and Teacher-Consultant for the Pennsylvania Writing Project. She can be reached at 14 Tice Lane, Perkasie, PA 18944.