Jeremy Ward--Metzger Fellowship Essay

A Thousand Fibers

  

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects” - Herman Melville

 

Amongst the din of third grade snack time, I called Ian over to my desk. Because snack  was a less structured time, kids were talking and eating; however many, including Ian, were quietly drawing at their desks while others whirled around them like dust devils across a classroom desert. I almost felt bad pulling Ian away from his drawing time. Most days he wouldn’t even eat snack, just head down turned towards a piece of paper drawing desperately intricate dragons and mythical creatures.  My intent was to invite him to have lunch with me that day, a rare offer, that most kids in 3W would excitedly jump at, but Ian accepted very cautiously, almost reluctantly. “I just thought we could talk a bit,” I told him, trying to reassure him he was not in trouble. 

Ian was one of those kids who immediately stands out when you look at a class photo or watch a group of kids follow their teacher down the hallway. A waif of a boy, he could easily be mistaken for a first grader. Add to this his shock of ginger curls and mischievous smile, he’d look just as at home in The Shire surrounded by Hobbits, as he would on a playground climbing structure. Beneath Ian’s striking physical appearance was a sensitive, kind hearted, almost naive little boy.

Ian had come by my classroom the day before school started, with his mom, A lovely woman who appreciated getting to meet me, and letting Ian see the classroom. The guidance counselors let me know Ian’s family situation was “complicated.” Any conversations about it with administrators usually began with hushed tones that often precede the sharing of confidential, sensitive family information. After some chit chat, Ian milled around my room, excitedly pointing out all of his friends’ names written on crisp new desk name tags. I asked him about his summer, and he asked me about things we’d study in third grade. Mom asked Ian to step out in the hall so we could talk.

Mom told me things I already knew about Ian’s father, and why he wouldn’t be around to do pick up or drop off. Having grown up around addiction, I felt a connection. It was kind of crazy; despite only knowing me for eight minutes, she was telling me deeply personal, private information. I was struck with how calm and matter of fact she was in speaking to me. Her almost businesslike tone was one of a mother who had to be stoic and strong for her son. As she ticked off the list of restrictions Ian’s dad had around school interactions, I knew she had conveyed this list to many caregivers before. I wanted to connect with her, so I dropped in veiled references to my own experiences with what she was saying, like, “I remember that with my father.”  Either way, whatever I said it seemed pathetically inadequate, all things considered. I’d known this woman and her child for 11 minutes. She’d given me an open window into some of her family’s deepest, darkest history, and I’d only dared to dip my toe into the cold water before pulling it back, unsure of the safety of what was below the surface.

That had all happened before school, now it was snack-time, and my meeting with Ian was imminent. Just after 12:30 Ian nervously poked his head around the doorway, lunch tray in hand. A floppy piece of cafeteria pizza barely fit on the tray which also housed a fruit cup and bottled water. “Come on in,” I said in the most reassuring voice I could muster. I stared jealously at his cafeteria pizza which had come a long way since my days of school lunch. “Pizza day, huh? Looks pretty good,” I said launching into small talk. For as much as I felt making small talk with 8 and 9 year olds was a strength of mine, I couldn’t have felt more uncomfortable in that moment, like an introvert dropped into the middle of a cocktail hour. Not knowing what else to say I stuck with the food theme. “Pizza is my favorite food, how about you?”

“Thai food, definitely!” said Ian enthusiastically.

We continued to speak about favorite foods for quite some time. For Ian the breezy subject matter broke the ice and allowed him to speak comfortably, and for me it put off the inevitable, which was the real reason I’d called the meeting. But as I glanced at the clock and saw the minutes flying by I knew the cocktail hour was coming to a close and the entree needed to be served. “Sooo, I wanted to check in with you about your dad,” I said slowly, probing Ian’s face for any sign of a reaction. His placid appearance reassured me to continue talking. “I heard what happened, and I wanted to say that I’m so, so sorry for your loss.”

“Yes, thank you,” replied Ian quickly, almost before the words were off my lips, hoping to move the conversation along. As a natural silence fell over the room, I quickly jumped to fill it. After all, I was the adult here. I’d asked him to come talk to me. I needed to have reassuring words of wisdom but, past, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,” I didn’t have much more planned. “My dad passed away recently too,” I sputtered clumsily, hoping Ian would see it as an inroad, awkward as it may be, to say more about his dad’s passing. He just shook his head in silent acknowledgement. I asked him if he’d told anyone at school yet. He said only one or two people, but no one from our class. “How do you feel about that? It must be hard. It’s not the easiest thing to bring up, I bet.” Ian’s answers were surprisingly matter of fact, devoid of emotion. But unlike his mother’s businesslike tone at the beginning of the year, which had been forged by necessity, Ian’s tone came from a different place. There was a lot I knew he didn’t know or understand about his father. I suspect he was still making sense of the whole situation. Ultimately our conversation drifted back into the banalities of life, summer plans, favorite books; these topics were the rocks we could safely hold onto and catch our breath while crossing this lake of uncertainty. There is always uncertainty when talking about mortality, but I was also uncertain about Ian, about his feelings, about whether this lunch conversation had any impact or even helped. I finished with one last cliche’, “Just let me know if you need to talk.” The words landed with a thud as Ian scurried away from the table as the sounds of classmates returning from lunch flooded the hallway.

Lunch over, students clamoured back into the room. Some finished conversations started in the cafeteria, while others moaned about writer’s workshop, which fell next on the daily schedule. None, however, knowing the conversation that had just occurred in room 238. And amongst it all was me, lamenting a missed opportunity.  I wasn’t even sure what I’d expected to come of this conversation. I had no idea where Ian was emotionally, and what did I expect, lunch is only 20 minutes long, 20 freakin’ minutes! What was I thinking? Did I even make a shred of connection; or had the fibers of the safety rope I’d extended to Ian been too feeble and weak? Over the next few months, I thought back on that day with regret many times.

The rest of Ian’s year was a slow ride with peaks and valleys. I watched Ian getting subtly pushed to the margins of his original peer group. Simultaneously, I watched as Ian’s background knowledge in social studies was impressing a new peer group within the class. Ian’s academic curiosity and kind manner were being appreciated, they were carrying social currency with this new group. I saw these new social connections as growth, but wondered what Ian thought of them, and of the friendships lost along the way? So much loss.

Mercifully, June arrived. It had been a hard year. It wasn’t just Ian’s situation, however; across the board it had been challenging. When friends would ask how the end of the year went I’d joked that we’d, “limped across the finish line.” As we neared the last day of school, the small tokens of thanks began to roll in as they always do, a “World’s Best Teacher” coffee mug, a hand drawn thank you card, or perhaps a homemade picture frame, each item precious, I’ve kept every one, nineteen years worth. It’s a ritual that happens literally every year. Yet, somehow, each year I forget about it until the cards and gifts show up on my desk. They serve as reminders of connections, connections that are most often formed organically, invisibly. It’s rare that I can look back and point to the “moment” of connection in most cases. That’s why I was taken aback when I opened a thank you card from Ian’s mom on the last day of school. It read:

 

I can’t even explain how grateful I am that you were Ian’s teacher this year. Your support has been tremendous in a very challenging year for my family. To this day I remember my third grade teacher, Mr. Bradford, as he had such an impact on how I viewed school, and viewed myself. I’m positive you have had the same impact on my son, and thank you doesn’t seem to be enough. You are a phenomenal teacher and should be so proud of how much of an impact you have on your students. I hope you have a relaxing summer. Thank You!”

 

Reading the note, I realized there are no clear moments of connection. Looking for them is akin to a fool’s game. Lunch with Ian seemed like that moment. I’d put a lot of pressure on that being my shot, to have that Dead Poet’s Society, ‘Captain My Captain’ moment with a student. In reality, that’s not how it goes. What’s more, because I’d felt like I’d stumbled during my lunch with Ian, falling flat in letting him know I was there for him, I became blind to all the other fibers of connection we’d made throughout the year. The one moment I could recall, the one connection of the thousand that year that seemed visible, while admittedly feeling inorganic, THAT moment, was probably not the one. In fact, there probably was not just ONE moment, but a series of times, conversations, interactions, that built the relationship, furtively, outside of my conscious view.  The connection had been invisible, despite my wishes for it to show itself and become obvious. While it was unrealistic for me to think I could control every moment in my classroom, I should take comfort in knowing that I had built a sturdy and meaningful series of connections within my classroom. And the fibers of those connections were stronger than one snippet from one lunch with Ian. The fibers may have been invisible, but they were powerful.