I had a student last year who has stayed in my mind all summer. She was tall and beautiful in an exotic and ethnic way. She was incredibly intelligent, especially in math. One of my greatest challenges for the year was finding a way to keep her growing and learning in math.
I will call this beautiful girl “Lina.” She was one of two girls in a household where the parents had recently divorced. She articulated her love for her father, a handsome, charming, and highly successful scientist. She expressed more mixed feelings for her mother, who was struggling to run a household for herself and her girls, while also working full time. Lina came to my class as a silent, slightly withdrawn student who immediately intrigued me.
Among her classmates, Lina was strong-willed and even dominant. She could control a group with a frown or an eloquent shoulder shrug. She was a presence in our classroom in every situation and at first I took her to be willfully in control in a way that made me uncomfortable.
But as the first few weeks went by, I began to see that underneath her stern and rigid exterior, Lina was an emotionally fragile and insecure girl. She held herself aloof from the crowd not out of a sense of superiority, but out of a need for self-protection.
Lina could be unkind, if she felt that a classmate was challenging her. She could be stubborn in ways that made me want to pull out my hair and scream. She somehow managed to sit immobile for an hour during one writing lesson, refusing to type even a single word on her laptop.
I spent many days trying to push or prod Lina into producing the work that I knew she was capable of producing. I repeatedly found myself pushing against an immovable obstacle, and my frustration mounted.
But after a few months, my view of this silent, powerful young woman began to shift and I started to see her stubborn streak as a kind of strength and resilience. As I slowly engaged her in conversation, I came to realize that her unwillingness to complete the tasks set before her came out of her fear that she could not succeed. Lina was a brilliant mathematician, but she felt herself to be an inferior writer. Like so many children in public school, Lina had put herself into a box, and lived in terror that one day she would be forced out of it.
It was during a unit on poetry writing that Lina’s fear really raised its head and confronted her. We had spent a week reading and discussing poetry, and the kids all sat with laptops on their desks, churning out personification, rhythm, and rhyme. Their task was to use one of the poetic devices from our lessons to write a poem about any topic of their choice. Fifty minutes into the lesson, I realized that Lina was simply sitting with her hands on her keyboard, but that nothing had actually been written.
I confronted her with some anger in my voice and she slipped easily into the mode of shrugging her shoulders, avoiding my gaze, and refusing to answer. She would have looked supremely tough if not for the tears in her eyes.
And so, I paused. I softened my voice and relaxed my shoulders. I asked, as gently as I could, “Lina, what are you afraid of?” She answered me, to my surprise,“I’m just not creative. I can’t write poetry.” My heart almost broke, hearing the resignation and admission of failure in the voice of this eleven-year-old. I put my hand on hers and vowed to show her that she was wrong. I promised to help her with her poetry.
Lina took me at my word and trusted me. And through that trust, she found her creative voice and she began to write.
When the year was over, we had our last conference. It was me, Lina, her father, and our school counselor, who had worked with Lina for all of her six years at our school. We reviewed the portfolio, talked about test scores, and shared our thoughts about the next school year. Finally I asked Lina, “Is there anything else that you want to say to me about fifth grade?” For almost a full minute we sat silent around that classroom table as Lina stared at the floor. Just as I was about to speak, to break the uncomfortable silence, Lina lifted her tear-filled eyes to mine. I waited for her to take a deep breath.
“Thank you,” she said.
I would never want any other job.