It was parent conference week at my school this past week. It’s a week I always look forward to (even while I dread the long hours required). I love getting a chance to talk with the parents after I have been able to see their child’s strengths, weaknesses, celebrations and struggles. Most of the conversations and strategies are pretty run-of-the-mill. Helping middle schoolers learn to prioritize, time-manage and organize is an on-going and ever-present task.
But every year since my first in the classroom, I have had a handful of conferences that are anything but run-of-the-mill. Some of the kids that come through my classroom have been through tragedy. Loss. Trauma. And as the teachers sit around the table and learn the information, the missing assignments suddenly become less important than the missing childhood. The focus shifts from succeeding in school to creating a support system to help the child succeed in living.
Once I learn of the background, there is one talk I always make sure to have with any student that went through too much far too soon.
I call it my “defining speech.” And it goes something like this:
“Make a line through this point,” I ask, drawing a dark mark in the center of a blank white sheet of paper.
“Is that the only line you can make through that point?” I ask.
“Well, no. I could make a bunch of different lines.” I gesture for them to show me.
I usually get a “Is my teacher crazy?” look at about this point.
“Well, yeah? I mean, two points make a line, right?”
“True. If it’s straight,” I say with a slight smile. “Try connecting them with something that isn’t linear.”
This is where I can tell who is willing to take risks. But they all manage to create some sort of nonlinear path through the two points.
“No. Do you want me to draw more? I mean, there are infinite ways!”
“No, it’s okay. I just want you to see that there are multiple paths to get from one of those points to the next.”
The shoulders relax as the brow rises, wondering about the point of this exercise.
“Almost done. I just have one more for you.”
Once they’ve completed the task, I bring the point home. Yes, pun intended.
“I want you to think of these points as events that happen in life. When you have a single point or event, it does not define your path. There were many routes you could take. When there were two points, there was only one way if you chose to see it that way. If you were more creative, you could find many more. But life doesn’t consist of just one or two events, even though certain ones may stand out more than others. Life is a series of events. And it is your choice how you move through them. Look at how you connected your points here on your last picture. You had to include the outliers, but it didn’t completely change the general shape of the graph.”
“I know you’ve had some stuff in your past that makes you feel like you’re stuck on a predetermined path. But you’re not. You had to walk through that point. That event or series of events. And now you decide what direction you go.”
“One event does not define you. YOU define you by the choices you make and the path you choose.”
Okay, class dismissed 🙂