The three words silenced my room:
“What the hell?”
They weren’t from a junior high student, because the utterance would have been in Chinese. The slip of the tongue was from a second grader. From the same kid who doesn’t know his sight words.
I looked at a coworker, who heard it too. While I was thinking about school policies on profanity to add to my mountain of grading, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Ms. Sins? You care too much.”
And then I heard it again.
Not what the hell, but those four words that sent shivers up my spine.
You care too much.
It was after school and I stopped by the tutoring center to check on a student. It was not the mischievous seven-year-old, but a high school student with a fifth grade reading level. She is drowning in her World Literature class, and her World Lit teacher is a real meanie (UH….me). I looked at her as she tried to read To Kill A Mockingbird in Chinese while listening to the English audio tape.
I handed her a lifeboat and two oars, otherwise known as leveled reading cards. Ironically, they were the cards I assigned her a year earlier, the same cards that she never touched. “How about read this instead?”
A coworker who was watching from the copy machine, shook her head and whispered, “You care too much.“
I headed back to my classroom only to hear a gaggle of students speaking Chinese in the hallway. This is a major taboo at our English speaking school. While other teachers turn a deaf ear, I am the one whose up until three AM correcting their tangled verb tenses. And, they have tangled English because they are speaking Chenglish.
I waggled my finger at the students:
“You don’t learn grammar in my classroom! You learn it around your lockers. Now pack up your Chinese and go home!”
Another sigh from a coworker. “It’s normal for them to speak Chinese. They’re just kids. You care too much.”
A nine grader with a fifth grade reading level. A second grader with the vocabulary of a sailor. Students not using the language they are paying big bucks to learn.
Do I care too much or am I just doing my job?
As a believer in the impossible, AKA, a God who makes whales that swallow folks and men out of mud, there is a blurry line between where one’s job ends and where one’s passion begins. So as a teacher in China, when do you stop caring about the gradebook and focus on bigger things? What is the priority of the classroom, especially when dealing with that kid? That kid that has a wad of paperwork stuck to his shoe like a piece of toilet paper. That kid who never does his homework. That kid who licks the glue sticks and uses a highlighter on his face. That kid whose like a broken vending machine and you keep on putting in time and getting nothing. I don’t know what I’m supposed to care for and what to let go.
Is teaching just about past participles or is teaching is about the things that never make the transcripts? The conversations that linger longer than the smell of Doritos? The thoughts that keep spinning like tumblers of a combination lock?
My mind rewound back to my days in youth ministry in Chicago, where I’d have this same sort of argument with the other youth pastor, affectionately known as Larry the White Guy. He got the name as he drove a yellow Twinkie of bus into the Cabrini Green housing projects every summer, packing the seats with kids to bring to Bible camp.
As the kids grew older and began slinging drugs on the corner, they would still wave at Larry when he rolled into their hood.
“Larry,” I’d sigh. “How can we teach kids about Moses and the dudes of Deuteronomy if they can’t read Dick and Jane?”
Larry would just smile, “Sometimes, our job is just to love them, not to fix them.”
Several of the students that had walked through our youth center door are dead now. Some had a bullet with their name on it. One was stabbed, several ended up with baby carriages instead of diplomas or orange jump suits instead of suits with pin-stripes.
The rest still hang out on the cyber street corner known as Facebook. Every now and then I’ll get an instant message. “Remember when we made dog biscuits or brought the life size cow into McDonald’s?”
“Good times,” I’d reply, wondering if that kid regrets not getting a GED. “So, how are you doing?”
“I’m struggling to keep the electricity on, but God is still good. And I still think of the good times.”
“Yeah,” I’d say, “Good times.”
But one day, I got another message on from a different kid on Facebook, a kid I almost crossed off my prayer list. He was pencil of a boy who dabbled in bad. His eyes held secrets, his lips didn’t spill mud, his hair a flat top like the Fresh Prince of Belaire. I’d walk him and his buddy home after youth group, wondering if I should bother to pray. His education will be behind bars. The local gangs have a target on his back. So I did nothing other than to just be with him.
Thirty years later, I am the one who’s dead. Dead Wrong. That kid is now a famous photographer in Chicago, looking at life through a different lens.
You never know the lives you touch and in what ways.
Now back to little What the Hell.
Yes, I told his mom. She was glad that I did.
So, can a teacher, person, youth leader or friend care too much?
Maybe isn’t not does one care too much, but choosing what one cares about.
And just maybe, when others see that you care, they’ll start caring, too.
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.