Love in the classroom takes many forms: One of my earliest experiences dates back to graduate school. I taught a high intermediate ESL grammar class comprised of 10 young ladies and one young man. The young man, Steven, wasn’t the best student. In fact, he struggled the most and was not catching on to the concepts. But he tried hard—he was tenacious. Giving up was not in his vocabulary. He’d raise his hand shyly and leave it in the air until he was called on. “Yes, Steven?” I say smiling.
“I don’ti . . . can’ti . . . why . . . um . . . what are you sayingu again aboutu this presenta parfik sing?”
“You mean using it to show the length of time you have done something?”
“Umm . . . I don’ti—”
So, to save time, I’d always finish these moments with me saying, “I can explain it to you after class. Don’t worry. I have time.” He’d smile, look down, and say, “Sank you, Patricki.”
And yet his not-so-subtle look of panic would follow my memory out the door and down the hall like a lost puppy in search of someone to love . . . in search of a home. Steven was always in the back of my mind—or, more accurately, running around every inch of my brain. My amygdala would be on high alert. My frontal lobe was always wondering what would become of Steven. I could feel Steven’s questions even when he wasn’t around. How could I help him?
What made matters worse is that none of the other students would join him when I had them pair up for activities. I would inevitably end up being Steven’s partner, but I wanted him to learn from the girls. I knew he could learn a great deal from them. I didn’t have any opportunity to make this clear to his classmates and how I wanted them to help Steven until one thankful day—yes, one blessed day.
After class on a Thursday afternoon, Steven announced to us that he was going to take the TOEFL—again! I think it was his fourth or fifth time.
Then he turned to me, “Mr. Patricki, I won’ta be in class tomorrow.”
“The TOEFL, Steven?” I asked.
The girls silently celebrated with great enthusiasm. It would be a day free of “Steven-questions.” I watched as they all gave each other a wink.
These girls were not mean by any stretch of the imagination. The truth was they were sweet, thoughtful, and polite. Some were very shy, though. I could tell they wanted to help Steven but didn’t quite know how. Sometimes I’d hear them in the hall trying to explain things to him. But, in the end, they didn’t want to be late for class. So, they would run off and leave poor Steven scratching his head and saying, “Hmm . . . I don’ti understand.” Only the walls in the hall and I would hear this.
Friday’s class went by quickly and smoothly. I actually was shocked when I saw we only had 10 minutes left. I recall that class was one of those that gave me goosebumps as I watched the girls working together and teaching each other about the grammar points that I had put on the board. That was one of my rules—if they could teach each other, they could learn better. That was the hard part for Steven.
So, I stood there, in the front of the class, soaked in goosebumps and proudly watched my students teaching each other. I felt this was the perfect moment to change our class dynamics. There was a harmony in the air that called out to me. It said, “Now . . . now is the time.” I really didn’t want to stop the class there and then, but I felt it was now or never.
“Ladies!” I called out. “That’s a wrap. Can you all come up front here and take a knee?”
I felt the energy in the room, it was full of love, a richness beyond time and space. If the word “bliss” could personify herself and walk into the room, she would have become even more blissful that very moment.
“I have a favor to ask all of you. So, can you close your eyes and imagine a certain situation?” My words were soft-spoken and calm.
The girls were silent. They were intent on listening to what I was going to say. We’d never had a class powwow before, and I hoped my words and request would be the guiding fingers to turn over a new leaf.
“Here is the situation . . . Imagine that you got the chance to study in the US. You arrive in Mr. Patrick’s grammar class. But, you are the only girl in the class. All the other students are boys. 10 boys. How would you feel? What if the other students in the class paired up and left you out? Would you enjoy this? Again, how would you feel?”
Without uttering another word, I heard almost every girl softly whisper, “Steven.” The class leader—the oldest girl and my star student—said, “Yes, Steven. He’s talking about being Steven.” They knew exactly what my point was. I opened my own eyes and watched each student slowly lift her head up and open her eyes. The timid-touched expressions and quiet smiles on their faces is something I’ll never forget.
“So, you see, what I’m asking you to do is be kind to him. When he returns on Monday, can you pair up with him without me having to say anything? If he needs help, can you help him? Can you become his sisters and make him your brother, your friend? Can you do that for me? That’s all I ask.”
The class leader looked at me and said, “Yes, Mr. Patrick. We will.” Then, she carefully looked at her classmates.
“We can, right? I mean, we will!” Her words seemed to echo in slow motion on that Friday afternoon as the class drew to a close.
In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens writes that after Scrooge was visited by the three spirits, he “was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.” Well, I can say the same about these compassionate young ladies. They were better than their word. They “did it all, and infinitely more.” The girls took Steven in and made him their friend inside and outside the classroom. And, what is more, they even warned me to be nice when “Steven was being Steven” and trying the patience of his dear teacher.
I watched these 10 girls develop into sincere and magnificent human beings; they became more beautiful as the weeks unfolded. When I watched the care they took with Steven, I’d get goosebumps that would cover my arms like a cool spring rain; and a poetic pulse of warm waves would beat cheerfully in my chest.
One Friday, not long after our secret chat, I watched Steven and one of his newly acquired sisters discuss a grammar point at the back of the room. His voice got excited, hit the ceiling, and flew off into the ether. The girl put her hand on Steven’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. Her voice jumped into the air as well and shouted, “Oh! You got it! Yes, it’s right, Steven!”
I let a teardrop dance down my cheek. The little liquid dancer must have reached out and caught the overhead lights and reflected loudly on my face. The star student’s eyes noticed it and offered me a smile. I’m pretty sure the others noticed it, too.
Patrick T. Randolph (AKA Sky Man) has published over 100 articles, 8 books, 3 short stories, and over 200 poems. He has received the Best of TESOL Affiliates Award from MITESOL, MIDTESOL, and MinneTESOL. Patrick started teaching English and coaching volleyball in Niigata Prefecture, Japan, in 1994. His family inspires his smile, and his cat, Master Gable, is his spiritual guru. YouTube Channel