Can’t Give to Them All

GiftOne of the many difficulties of teaching is seeing a child living with less than she needs or desires. There’s no question that poverty exists in all cities, towns, communities, and yes, schools. As teachers, we see it every day in our classrooms.

It would be wonderful if we could not only provide our students with a strong educational foundation, but also meet social, emotional, and physical needs. The majority of us attempt to meet the varied needs of all of our students, even though such a task is impossible.

One of the benefits of teaching in a well-funded private setting is that more elaborate programs can be designed and implemented to meet the non-academic needs of children. These programs can help develop, strengthen, and meet the social, emotional, and behavioral goals for students who struggle in these areas. Quite often children don’t have the necessary family support system and adult modeling to function successfully in schools and society.

I’ll share an incident that happened early in my career while teaching at a day treatment program for socially, emotionally, and behaviorally impaired adolescents.

The Incident

During the winter months in the Pacific Northwest, the recreational component of our program had all students participate in an eight-week downhill and cross-country skiing program. Students would participate in one four-week session learning to cross country ski and one four-week session learning to downhill ski.

I had the good fortune to lead the two sessions of downhill where I got to ski Mt. Hood Meadows free while students were involved in their 90-minute lesson, after which I would take them on the beginner and advanced runs to learn more skills.

Now just like in the regular school settings, I worked with students who did not get the parental nurturing, support, and attention they needed. So on this particular ski morning I decided to take my new 8mm video camera on the slopes to film the students, many of whom had never seen themselves on film before.

Now I wouldn’t label myself an expert double black diamond skier, but I can navigate most hills without too much trouble; so skiing backwards on the beginner and intermediate slopes while filming students wasn’t too much of a task. So, one-by-one I’d instruct the students to ski down slowly and then make a couple moves as they skied by the camera. It was all going pretty well until it was Michael’s turn.

Michael, a beginning skier who was a bit awkward and just moving from wedging to parallel skiing, started down the hill. I stayed 20 or so feet in front of him, skiing backwards and taking what I must admit was some pretty sweet action video. Michael, having never been filmed before, became overly fascinated with the camera and forgot to focus on the basic fundamental of downhill: controlling your speed. He simply stopped wedging!

Now even on the bunny hill, if you don’t wedge or turn, you pick up some pretty healthy speed. Michael was a perfect example of such a scenario; he came barreling straight toward me. Unfortunately I was too engrossed in my Academy Award ski documentary to notice his speed and direction.

I’m not really sure at what point I realized this 120-pound bullet was on a collision course with me, but what I can tell you is the realization came far too late. As his little body filled the camera lens, I moved my gaze from the viewfinder just in time to see his two skis jet between mine and to catch him like a wrestler in a bear hug. We tumbled head over skis backwards down the slope for what seemed to be five minutes, finally coming to a rest in the cold, wet snow, leaving an uphill trail of debris that included skis, poles, a pair of goggles, and my camera. Yes, my almost brand-new $1200 8mm camera I was supposed to use to film my own beautiful daughter who had just been born was lying 50 yards up the hill, half buried in snow.

I realize that as a teacher my first thought should have been for the health of my student, but since I had not asked my wife if I could take our new camera on this field trip, my total focus was on the health of my camera and my own precious health that would be in serious jeopardy when I showed up at home that evening.

I rushed as fast as one can in ski boots up a snow-covered hill to rescue my half-buried video cam. To this day, I thank the gods that I was able to take her inside and gently wipe her down so that no damage occurred. Apparently stupid people weren’t scheduled to be punished that day, so I escaped with just a moment of panic and a lesson well learned.

I wanted to provide some of my students with the experience of having an adult spend just a bit of time to make their day a little happier. The problem is I’ll never be able to replace their parents; nor should I try. It’s not my job. I can feel empathy and sympathy for my students, but my real job is to help them become the most competent individuals they can become. Meeting this need is the true key to effective education. Trying to out-parent the parents of needy kids is misguided energy.