30 January 2017

The Heart-Shaped Balloons

I think it’s time to tell you about the heart-shaped balloons.

I know you’re not supposed to have favorite students, but we all do. For me, her name was N (censored for obvious reasons), a 6th grader. At the beginning of the school year in August 2016, she walked into my class with purple woven into her braids. Over time, those braids would turn neon green, and acquire really cool gold rings; she would chew them when she was nervous or upset and flip or twirl them when she was happy.

My heart cracked open on the second day of school because of N. She came into my class and just literally broke down in tears. I told her to go step outside and get some fresh air. When I came outside to speak with her, she was sitting on the steps of my classroom with her head buried in her lap, sobbing uncontrollably. I sat down on the steps next to her.

"I'm really stupid, Ms. Jones," she sobbed when I asked her what was up. “My mom told me that if I fail 6th grade like I failed 5th, I’ll be in big trouble.” Her tears were so real, so raw, so overwhelmingly full, and so powerful. They shone like little precious diamonds on her cheeks. And I promised her that 6th grade would be different for her.

At week five, kids received their first report cards. She had all A's and one C (in PE, so who cares). When she left class that day, she twirled her braids as she slipped me a note (pictured at right) with tears in her eyes.

Thank you so much Ms. J.

It was the most simple and yet the most beautiful note that anyone (with the exception of my mom) has ever given me. It was in that moment that I realized that I need my students more than they need me.

This need is something that I’ve talked about at length with some of my especially special teacher friends. During my first month of teaching last fall, my boyfriend (of 5 years) and I were in the middle of a very ugly breakup (update: things have changed since I wrote this, but it was ugly at the time). My personal life was in ruins. And yet every single minute in the classroom blurred out the shittiness.(And yes, there were some really difficult days with my students.) At the time, though, I had one purpose in life, and that was to love and care for my students relentlessly. And I did.
I watched N struggle, a lot, over the course of 5 months. I witnessed her lowest lows and highest highs. Even though I had her for 6th period at the end of the day, we had little rituals of seeing each other throughout the day. Her third period class was next door to my third period class (I moved classrooms throughout the day), and every day I would stand at the door to greet my third period students and she would walk by and we would chat for 3 minutes about all the important happenings in both of our lives. I looked forward to that part of my day as much as she did, perhaps more.

And almost every day after 6th period, she would wait for me to close down my classroom and we would walk out of the school together, talking about life and school and the future and giggling the whole way to the gates.

So fast forward to early December. It’s a Friday, and I'm supposed to take my students to the library. N comes into class sobbing uncontrollably and dramatically puts her head down in her arms and just heaves those sobs, her braids spreading out over her shoulders and the table like a black veil. No one can even get near her, she’s sobbing so loud. I ask my master teacher to take the rest of the class to the library, and I sit in the desk across from N.

“What’s up?” I ask.

Her head jerks up and she looks at me with these swollen eyes. And in her eyes I can see this war raging inside her, and I must have had it too at some point, this teetering between child and teen, all the wild and weird and wonderful thoughts. But beyond all that, something different: a fire. In that fire I can see the learning disability and her absent father and her mean twin brother and the poverty and the Projects and the injustice and all the other things I can’t begin to help her with, even though I wish I could. All I know to offer her is my presence.

“Seriously, what’s going on?” I ask again.

“My...friends...forgot my birthday,” she sobs. Her birthday - her 12th birthday - is the following day, Saturday. She manages to tell me, literally gasping for air, that all of her friends had arranged to sing happy birthday to her other friend, whose birthday wasn’t even until Sunday, during 5th period. She's devastated and feels forgotten and can’t stop/won't stop crying. “I’ve never forgotten any of their birthdays.”

And I totally understand her. I understood her all along, but I really understood her right here at this desk in this classroom on this day in December. The teacher in me wants to make this into a teachable moment; the human being in me has to share my personal story with her to help her understand.

“Dude, people suck,” I begin. “People suck. And it’s a totally horrible part of life.” Her eyes get all wide and her tears sorta slow down in their descent. Deep inside me I held a similar sadness, and I told her about that sadness. I told her how I always go out of my way to wish people happy birthday via hand-made cards or heartfelt messages on Facebook, and that the sad reality is that sometimes people just forget your birthday. Then, I dug deeper, to the part of me that hurt the most about birthdays.

“You know what?" I continue. "Every year for the past 4 years, I’ve filled my boyfriend’s room with balloons as a surprise for him for his birthday. I love balloons, and I think he likes them, too, so I buy them for him. And do you know how many birthdays he’s bought me balloons? Zero. He’s never bought me balloons. But do you think that stops me from buying him balloons? It doesn’t. You know why? Because I’m kind.” Her eyes are huge at this point. “I’m kind, and I want him to know that he’s so special to me I’m willing to say it with balloons.”

And then I get all preachy.
“The world will not always be kind back, N. It won’t. But you are kind, and you can’t let the world take that away from you. Never let it take away your kindness.”
Okay, blah blah, you’re getting sick of reading this sappy bullshit, but I swear there’s a point to this.

Fast forward again. It’s my last day of student teaching, and I am a wreck. I already cried about it all day long. I said goodbye to my 8th graders without too many tears, but just thinking about my 6th graders made me tear up.

It’s 6th period and I’m sitting in my classroom already crying. The periods were only 35 minutes, so I know the period will come and go too quickly. Students start to trickle in, we all exchange somber looks, and I tell each one how much I already miss them.

Then N shows up in the doorway. Well, it's actually a bouquet of heart-shaped balloons and a bouquet of flowers that show up first, with N behind them. One glance and I’m gutted, there in front of the classroom I stand up and have to sit back down again. It's the most heartbreaking and heartwarming thing I’ve ever experienced. I put my head down in my hands, and she comes up to me. It's her turn now. She puts the balloons and flowers down next to me, and I can't even look at her.

"Now, whenever you think about the first person to get you balloons as an adult, you'll think of me," she says. "You'll never forget me."

And, you guys, it's not about the balloons. It wasn't about the balloons with my boyfriend, either. It was the gesture, the act. Buying balloons is a fucking hassle. You have to have someone at the store blow them up for you - you have to first locate a person to even do it. You have to carefully exit the store with them and squeeze them into your car and pray that they don't pop while you're driving. And you have to carry them inside, hiding them from the person they are intended for until the right moment. And it's not even about the hassle, because each time I bought my boyfriend balloons I was always so excited to see his face light up when I surprised him that the hassle was just a part of loving him.

N later flipped her braids as she told me that she saved all her birthday money for my bouquet and balloons. And it wasn't about that, either. I don't even know what it's truly about. I try to put into words what those balloons mean to me, and I have no words. Those balloons are still in my room. They are almost completely deflated, and my cats want to destroy them. Once they completely lose their air, I will flatten them and staple them to my wall in my classroom: the ultimate trophy, the ultimate display of love.

These heart-shaped balloons, my friends, are so much more than heart-shaped balloons. I wish I could help you understand. Maybe you already do.


P.S. There's a lot of hate in the world right now, even some in my own heart. Please, above all else, be kind to each other.

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