They blaze into Room 309 at 8:16, sporting new t-shirts and vintage ones, silver watches and Silly Bandz, first-day-of-school garb.
I hand them a yellow index card. "Write for me," I say, "Begin with, 'I am...' or 'I am not..."'
Off they go, scribbling first words with their newly sharpened pencils.
They despise school. They adore school. They'd like school, if only, if only, if only...
Their summer? They've gone swimming with sea turtles in Hawaii. Their parents have divorced. They've been diagnosed. Or, trapped in summer school. Their beloved grandmother has died.
They are 13 years old.
They have learning disabilities and autism and ADHD. They have fancy homes with pools and with fighting. They have it's-three-to-a-bed-in-my-home lives.
They are a group of human beings tossed together for a year.
I look out at them.
I long for them to know, right now, on day one, that I care about who they are as learners, of course, but also as human beings.
And, even after so many years of back-to-school, I am frightened, overwhelmed by all that I do not know.
What is your name again?
Jack and Jake. An Emily and an Eliot. A Jacques and a Pietro. A Risa, a Rakaya, a Rabia and a Raffael. Tymine and Talya and Triston and Tamia. Aja and Miranda. On and on.
Four classes. Eighty-two names. Eighty-two individuals. Eighty-two sets of needs.
I hand them a list — Ms. Baker's Top Ten Ways to Be Successful (and Happy) in Literacy Class (and in Life) — and say, "Now, it's your turn. Write a Top Ten List about yourself."
They write about their loves—an albino hedgehog named Chester, the violin, snowboarding. And, they capture the awesome moments of their lives—hitting a homerun, eating ice cream in Pentwater, Mich., rescuing a puppy from the Humane Society. They write about what concerns them – homework, global warming, child soldiers, and racist acts that, darn it, they still witness.
And, a quiet young woman shares this piece, crafted in poetry.
"ten things I believe" by ryan fletcher
"...I wish I was little again
when the world was only as big
as my imagination would let it be.
When the days seemed longer,
Filled with grass stains and
When I didn't care what I looked like
Or what others thought of me...
... no matter what people tell me,
I know that there is still good in the world...
And it is always trying to spread itself, giving out pieces
To whoever wants it..."
In our classrooms, how do we, in the words of Ryan, create a place where "goodness spreads," where tolerance reigns, where diversity is celebrated? How do we build a community where all students share of themselves, where all students voice their ideas, and feel valued? These are my questions, my worries, my thoughts, still today, on the first day of my 18th year as a teacher.
Baker has been a middle school Language Arts educator for more than a decade.