"Oh my gosh, you're beautiful. She could be your baby!" cried a mother at Back to School night, as she came into the room to take her seat and hear my shaky 45-minute speech I'd been rehearsing since junior college. Truly.
To be honest, I was equal parts flattered and embarrassed, but I totally agreed with her. Well, about the true compliment the mother gave--she thought her daughter and I looked alike. I thought so too. There was something familiar and striking in Zoey's eyes. She looked like me when I was a kid. Not a ringer, but there was something there. Now my thought was legitimized by the woman who knows and loves her more than anyone on earth. It was one of the most genuine compliments I've ever received. I reminded her of one of her favorite humans.
All of my students are special and important to me. I have been praying for their health and well-being since...well, again, that was something I started doing in junior college. I started praying for the health of my future students. And practicing my Back to School speech. Positive thinking and having goals came naturally to me then. I miss that girl. Point is, teachers are human and we do and don't have favorites. Favoritism is as complex as teaching is a career. Favoritism manifests itself in many different ways. Sometimes my "favorite" isn't really my favorite, but it's the kid who requires the most work. The one with the most quirks, the ones who get under your skin, they drive everyone crazy, but you live for that kid. One might assume the so-called "good kids" who are easy to teach and easy to be around would be the favorites. Those kids often go under the radar. Since you don't spend as much time fretting over how to teach them, they can slip by if you're not careful.
Zoey is a kid who could go right under the radar. She's a terrific actress and she could convince everyone around her things are under control, even if they are not. Lots of big life stuff happened in her little world that year. She lost her beloved grandfather. Her oldest sister bounced back and forth from home to reform school. Then her parents separated during my first year of teaching. They patched things up a few times over the next year or two, and eventually had their big split. Despite living down the street from school, Zoey was often late in the morning, and one of the last kids to go home. I remember one day her mom didn't come pick her up, I drove her home when I left since it was on my way. I could have gotten in big trouble for that, but I had a bigger problem with what the alternative would have been. When I called Zoey's mom to see if she was on the way, she was out and didn't know when she'd be able to get there. She said Zoey's older sisters were home and they would watch her, and pleaded with me to give her a ride. I was happy to help out, and nothing bad came of it, but technically I could have lost my contract over it. Depending on who you ask at the district, I probably shouldn't have gone to see her in all-child production of "Beauty & The Beast" either, but when a kid invites me to something, I try to attend. I've been to horse shows, birthday parties and all sorts of fun things. Sometimes that means more to a kid than anything that happens in class. I remember how important it is to have adults pay attention to you. I remember how much my teacher's attention meant when I was in school.
Zoey was a bright shining light in my class. Aside from being a survivor with a winning smile and beaming facade, she was genuinely sweet, talented artistically and dramatically, a great reader, and a happy student. I remember what it was like to lose yourself and forget your worries at school. Elementary school was magic. It was my turn to provide that magic to someone else.
Her mother was sweet. Her mother is mentally imbalanced. I can relate.
I drove past Zoey's old house a little over a month ago. Two cop cars were parked and several officers were standing at her gate. My heart sank into my socks. I hadn't talked to Zoey in far too long, I think the most we'd communicated was photo comments on facebook. Yet another thing the district wouldn't approve of, but since I was laid off and turned into a sub, I stopped caring about those idiots, I'm back to common sense and doing the right thing. Fakebook is another topic entirely, I'll leave it alone. I sent Zoey a message, trying to be as lighthearted as was appropriate. I said something about how it's been too long since we talked and I happened to drive past her house and it looked like things might be rather intense. Her reply spawned a series of messages that broke my heart. Something bad went down about a year and a half ago, she and her sisters moved out of Bel Air and into an apartment with their father. She hasn't been in touch with her mother since.
How did I let a year and a half go by and not know Zoey was dealing with such a major life crisis? She's in 8th grade now. I haven't seen her since she was in 6th, when she came back to visit the little old elementary. Those visits are always fun, kids gush over how tiny everything is and tell the wackiest memories. It's darling.
I'm a blast from the past, I guess, but I'm not content to just be that. As her mother said, "she could be your baby!" They all are. If any of my students ever needed me, I'd be there. They may not be my blood family, but they're my school family and they'll always be in my heart.
Zoey and I are going on an outing Sunday. We're getting our nails done and having lunch at the Huntington. Chinese Tea Garden! I'm really excited to see her. Part of me reached out and asked her on an outing because it seemed like the right thing to do (she sounded like she could use a female role model / friend) but I also asked because I'm genuinely looking forward to listening to her talk about whatever it is she wants to talk about these days. Dreams. Her favorite music video. Her science teacher. Whatever is going on in her world. It's important to listen. It's important to be present.