Story by Kaaryn Hermsen
I am a High School English teacher in the Gateway Alternative Program at Harlem High School, Machesney Park, Illinois. This is my first year teaching alternative education. The dynamics of our alternative education classes consist of a smaller amount of students (no more than fifteen), a slightly slower pace of curriculum distribution, and a more relaxed atmosphere than your “normal” classroom setting. These students have either flunked English before (once, twice, even three times), have an attendance problem, have some behavior problems or are possibly “slipping through the cracks” and need that extra attention for a number of different reasons. Those reasons can include anything: broken homes, abuse, neglect/abandonment, sexual assault, pregnancy (three of my students out of 40), death in the immediate family…the list seems never ending. But because of these factors, my students already have built up defensive walls and cunning ways to play the game even before they step into my classroom. I am a teacher, their worst enemy. And even though I know this, I still must remember that my job/goal is to first earn their trust so I can, second, teach them the required curriculum so that, third, I get through to them that graduation is a must, even though most of my students feel otherwise about it.
This year has been an emotional up and down rollercoaster. It can be very trying week after week, day after day, hour after hour, dealing with children with so many different problems. I have quite a few students floating in and out of rehab, juvenile detention and even one on the “Sex Offender” list that your local day care center has access to. But I have grown to love them all. Even the ones that I know I will never “reach”, they hold a special place in my heart. Every day, I am exposed to a different kind of lifestyle that I have never experienced, and every day, I give many thanks to God for all of the incredible blessings that I take for granted daily: a healthy, loving three year old daughter, an amazing set of parents who are still together and gave/give me everything I have ever wanted and more, a sister and new brother in law that shower my daughter and I with an abundance of love and affection, the kindest/smartest four year old black lab, a very blessed family tree that keeps getting bigger with announcements of new babies on the way, a tight circle of good friends, a two bedroom apartment with heat and gas and food in the refrigerator all the time, a nice car that is reliable and can take me anywhere I want to, stylish clothes that have overtaken every inch of my closet, and all those “little” perks, like bottles and bottles of bubble bath or lotions that makes my days a bit nicer. Many times, I have stepped into my apartment and thought that most of my students would think of my tiny, very modest home as a castle and a haven.
Obviously, this job does not have too many outward perks. The students don’t always appreciate my concern, my desire for them to learn their nouns and verbs, my reasons for discipline actions for misbehaving in class. We have been together for a whole semester. Today was our last Friday of the term and only have a few more days until all the students switch out of my class into new ones. There are times when I think these students and I are ready to have a break from each other. But I know they care. And today is no exception.
Yesterday, two of my better female students came up to me and asked me if I would leave my door open so they could come in today and do “something”. I had to be out of the room and it was something that they could not share with me. I hesitated, but said I would do as they asked. Lunch falls before their class, so they said they were coming in at 11 am and our class starts at 11:20 am. Well, my anticipation of what was going to come was overwhelming. Part of me was kicking myself for letting these girls do WHATEVER it was they were doing. But I trusted them, and my gut, that they would not do anything that would hurt me or the room.
All the other students were waiting outside the class with smiles on their faces when I arrived. Some were whispering, “She’s coming!” and others were hustling around laughing and joking. The bell rang and they told me to wait just a bit. One student asked me to turn around so I would not see in the window. Being in a good mood, I turned around. About one minute later, it was time to go in. The first thing I saw was my chalkboard with the words “WE ALL LOVE YOU AND WE ARE GONNA MISS YOU, MRS. HERMSEN!!” And “Love,” with a list of every student’s name in the class followed. Orange and black banners, our school colors, covered the walls and my desk. EVERY single desk in the room had on it a homemade chocolate chip bar, a Kool-Aid squeezy drink, a plastic bowl of popcorn, a Caramel Apple sucker, and a handful of candy. I stood in amazement at what they had done for me and tears of joy appeared.
They know how much I love them!! They know I care. Up to this point, it has been easy for me to explain the circumstances of this whole experience, but now I find it very difficult to write exactly how incredible these 14-15 year old students have made me feel today. I guess I can put it best by saying this: Some say that teachers make a difference in their student’s lives and they guide them to become better people. In my opinion, I believe it works BOTH ways.