Authored by: Taj Taher, AmeriCorps member at Graham Hill Elementary School
“I’m in the green and I feel relaxed.”
“I’m in the yellow! I feel joyful.”
I furrowed my eyebrows. Our morning mood meter check-in was supposed to be a way for me to get a sense of our students’ energy levels and emotions so that I could tailor my teaching to them. But every single day of the year, JD repeated the same sullen words with a glum expression to match. In the face of such stoic pessimism, it was becoming difficult to keep up a positive can-do attitude, a heart pumping full of grace, and a soul generated by love. As much as I chiseled away at that stony surface – with a smiley greeting every morning, asking about his interests and hobbies, and offering to assist with classwork – JD was proving to be unyielding.
As an AmeriCorps member, my success in supporting JD academically and behaviorally rests in my ability to establish a near-peer relationship. However, this seemed impossible given his inherent mistrust of all adults. Several years ago, he’d gone through the brutal experience of having three different teachers within one year and his parents separating. These circumstances led JD to decide he wouldn’t form relationships with adults since they were all selfish and believed children were stupid. Why should he respect adults when none of them respected him? With these thoughts swirling in his mind, JD would burst into “I don’t care!” or “I hate all teachers and this school!” or “You’re all the same, none of you understand!” whenever he was reprimanded for being off task or disruptive in class.
I could have left it at that. After all, I would be leaving at the end of the year. Wouldn’t I be fulfilling his prophecy if I did forge a relationship with him but left anyway? However, every so often I’d catch a glimpse of all he could be: in his ravenous consumption of literature, his clear desire for justice, and – when his mother teared up during parent-teacher conferences explaining how much she relied upon him for support and hope – he gave her a solemn nod of reassurance, showing he was very much her rock.
He wasn’t just any rock though. He was a diamond, and I had to continue chiseling. However, I remembered that only diamond cuts diamond, so my job wasn’t to save JD; it was to show him that he could help himself shine.
The first opportunity emerged at my after school art club. I was having difficulty capturing the attention of the youngest students, so I desperately turned to JD (the oldest in the club) and asked “Can you help me out please?” I was taken aback when JD raised his fingers to his lips and commanded the others to turn their eyes and bodies towards me. The kids, perhaps equally as shocked to see such behavior from an awe-inspiring “big kid”, fell in line.
He didn’t do it to please me and receive my praise, as so many students do. Instead, JD was moved by his ideals of respect and equality. When I had humbled myself by seeking his help, I displayed my conviction that children are as capable (if not more) than adults. Before resuming the lesson, I said “Thank you for helping me by being the perfect role model.” In response, he gave me the same solemn nod I’d seen him give his mother. In the following weeks, he was a consistently calming presence in our club, being the leader his peers and I needed him to be.
One day, he surprised me again. I found him playing tag with his friends during recess, and he didn’t reject me when I asked if I could join. Even more surprising, however, was the JD that I encountered during the game. A toothy grin stretched across his face, he emitted a banshee’s screech like a kind of war-cry as he chased me and his friends (I still have nightmares).
Throughout the year, I have seen the maturity he displayed in art club and the joy he radiated in recess continue to develop. He is quick to call out rude or disrespectful behavior between peers, adults to students, and vice versa in a manner that is polite but hard hitting. His strong moral compass and dedication to justice inspires me to be mindful of my every word and action. When I see him raising his hand to contribute in class discussions, when I see him sharing his wry sense of humor with me and his classmates, and when I see him model for his peers how to best behave, the light from the beginnings of his diamond-like glimmer moistens my eyes.
JD is far from being a perfect diamond. His apathy towards schoolwork has not disappeared, he still lacks the drive to push himself to reach his immense potential, and I don’t know if he truly believes in what he can accomplish. Yet, I know that one day he will shine brighter than the sun was on the morning it was his turn to share his mood and – after months of being blue and bored – he spoke seven spectacular words.
“I’m in the green and I’m calm.”