Be the change, reflection, students

Dear Arnold…

Dear Arnold,
It was 2 weeks into the school year and there you were in the office; pants down by your knees, no backpack and the biggest grin stretched across your face.  When you asked me if I was your teacher and I said yes, you wrapped both tiny arms around my belly and gave me the biggest hug any skinny 4th grader had ever given me.  As we walked to the classroom, you eagerly asking questions, I thought about how lucky I was to have you in my room since you had that great big smile, if only your pants weren’t so close to your knees.

The class invited you in, they were used to kids coming in from other cities and also fell under the spell of your smile.  Introductions were made, tentative friendships were formed.  Then one day, you started yelling. You were so mad, I had never seen a skinny little child scream so loud and so fiercely standing up for what you thought was an injustice.  Pulling you out into the hallway, I calmed you down and soon that big grin came right on back.

It was like a bubble had burst that day.  The grin was hidden away and the anger and the need to fight for yourself became a frequent visitor.  And yet, you never were angry at me.  I never felt threatened even when other teachers pointed to my growing belly and asked how I felt safe in my room.  I tried to explain to them that you were just being loud, venting a bit, and that all that screaming really was just for show; a way for you to fight for yourself as you had had to do so many times before.

Every morning you would say hello to the baby in my stomach and you would tell all the other kids about it.  Every morning I would remind you to pull up your pants, until I finally got you a belt, which you then strapped around your knees so that the pants stayed right there.  Almost every day I would pull you out in the hallway and remind you to just breathe, the others weren’t trying to make you mad.  Take a deep breath, let’s talk about it.

It was time for the baby to come so I went on leave.  I cried even though I knew my kids were in the best of hands.  I would try to sneak by for visits with the new baby but you always spotted me from the classroom window as if you knew that today was the day I was going to stop by.  You loved that little baby as much as you loved me and you told her that every time you held her.  I noticed you now had sticker charts and reminders of anger management strategies and that your grades were so bad.  And yet, when I walked in that door you told me about the good things.  See Mrs. Ripp, I got a C on this paper.  See Mrs. Ripp, I did this.  Your pride could not be taken away.

I came back from leave and you were the first one down to my room.  That big old hug came out again and you mentioned how much easier it was to hug me now.  Later that afternoon, that angry little boy was there again, yelling so loud for my attention.  Your lungs must have gotten bigger in the 12 weeks I was gone because I had never heard such a noise come from such a tiny child.  Just breathe, it will be alright.

The school year started winding down and we still battled with your demons.  I could read all of your signs.  Your fist closing, your quicker breaths, your eyes darting from place to place.  I knew when that voice would come back and I knew that you weren’t mad at me; you were just mad at the world.  And the world sometimes seemed to be mad right back at you.  That final day when we said goodbye, you cried sitting under your old desk.  You looked up and asked me, “But Mrs. Ripp, what am I supposed to do?”  I had no answer so I simply hugged you one more time and cried with you.

All summer I thought about you and tried to contact you with no luck.    When another year started I was told you had moved again and would not be back to my school.  I just hoped and wished that I had given you enough reminders to breathe, calm down, it’s not you against the world; it’s us against the world.

I still look for you whenever I find myself in a big crowd of kids.  Hoping that from somewhere in the middle of all those little bodies, one set of skinny arms will reach out and hug me and say “Mrs. Ripp, where did you go?”  And I would tell you, “Nowhere, I am right here if you need me.”  Arnold, I am still right here.

13 thoughts on “Dear Arnold…”

  1. What a simple, eloquent testimony to the struggle and joy of teaching. I remember a few students with whom I got involved in their battles, and perhaps was able to offer some help. And most often one never knows what happened…but I did meet one of those students from a third grade class of mine, 10 years later on the campus of our local junior college. He seemed to be doing well. It was gratifying, a rare treat for a teacher in these embattled times.Thank you.

  2. Thank you for sharing this tender story. It’s a reminder of how much our students hold us as much as we hold them. Even though you didn’t mention it in your story, I imagine your demeanor with Arnold had an equally significant impact on the rest of your students. Despite his behavior, you chose true patience, kindness and faith over anger and frustration. While you may never hear from him again, I am certain that Arnold will remember your warmth and understanding for the rest of his life.

  3. What a wonderful reminder to start the school year. It takes patience, understanding, and courage to connect with our students. Thank-you for sharing…

  4. Thanks for sharing this story. It is so sad when we see our students acting out because they are suffering in some way. You were patient and kind and began each day as brand new. Arnold knew that he could trust you and your support was unconditional, even when he was challenging to you and his classmates. I am sure, just as you will never forget Arnold, he will never forget you.

  5. Fred, Thank you so much for sharing you story of one of your "lost" kids. We hope all the time that we are making a difference, this shows you that you did and that is a great testament.Mindi, Thank you for reading this. I am always glad to remind myself to just love these kids no matter what.Katie, The rest of the class did take a gentler approach and it will always be one of my most treasured classes. We really built an amazing community of support and acceptance for each other. So many teachers make these choices of patience, kindness and faith and should be celebrated for this. teachers are born, or at least great teachers have an innate sense of being that reflects upon their students.Ron, Thank you for reading my post. I often find I need to just remind myself to breathe and listen. The connection is what makes every single day worth it even more.Cathy, thank you for your kindness in your words to me. I know that I will never forget him and part of me selfishly hopes that he know that I still care for him. I hope some day to see him again and see what kind of man he becomes.

  6. So touching a story… The love of children comes so transparently through. Thank you. For reminding me that the most important word in "teacher" is EACH.

  7. Thank you for posting this. I have an Arnold in my class right now. We spend much time breathing through. He has touched my heart to very the core of who I am and forced me to come back to all that I believe in. There is no better answer than this to the question "why do you teach"?

  8. This is such a touching story, it makes me realize that I need to focus more on the people in my class, rather than my material. I hope Arnold is doing well and that you will see him again some day.

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