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Every Kid Deserves a Clean Slate – How One Student Changed Me


How One Student Changed Me

I was blessed to have met Jordan in my second year of teaching. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the lesson he taught me – that every kid deserves a clean slate – made me the teacher I am today.

Blessed was not a word I’d have used at first, though. He was a very, very angry little boy. A scowl had etched a seemingly permanent V between his dark eyebrows. He ripped up his schoolwork before anyone could see it. He tossed textbooks away. Recess was a battleground. He started fights with his foul mouth and finished them with his fists.

It had been this way since kindergarten, and as he moved up through the grades, he carried his reputation with him like invisible armor. His teachers walked on eggshells. His peers shied away. It seemed there wasn’t much to like about him at all.

The veteran teachers warned me about him. They said keep your thumb on him. Don’t give him an inch. Don’t back down. He needs rules and responsibilities. He needs discipline. No one ever suggested offering a clean slate instead.

He crossed my classroom threshold in September with his hood up, fists clenched. He was just nine but carried the weight of the world on his skinny, hunched shoulders. Things went as expected. On his part, work refusal, shredded notebooks, fistfights. On my part, detention after detention after detention, him sitting in stony silence, me refusing to give an inch and let him see me crack.

Then one day, I was working at my desk before school when I heard a rustling. I looked up and there was Jordan rifling through his desk. The angry rebuke was on the tip of my tongue. He knew he wasn’t allowed to come in before the bell! But he’d been away from school the past few days, so I curiously asked, “What are you looking for?”

He looked up quickly, then down and away, mumbling, “My duck whistle.”

“Duck whistle?”

He looked up.

“It’s my Grandpa’s. Him and me went together.”

And encouraged by my prompts and questions, he told me how he and Grandpa would get up early in duck hunting season, don their camo, and hike out to the marsh together. They’d chat all the way but as they approached the wetland, they’d drop their voices to a whisper. Jordan painted such a clear picture of the duck blind, he and grandpa huddled inside, mist rising off the marsh, the silence only broken by the sound of Grandpa’s duck calls, waiting for the birds to break above.

All of a sudden, I had a new picture of this little boy – his patience, and intelligence, his role as a grandson. Equally importantly, he had a new picture of me – an adult who listened to him, cared about what he said, was interested in his life.

The veterans were partly right. He did need rules and responsibilities. But before that and above that, he needed relationships. He started coming in early most days. We’d chat each morning about his hunting, his other hobbies, his family. I’d tell him about my activities too – making him giggle with tales of how I’d tripped over my own lace in soccer or dropped a milk carton right in the middle of the cereal aisle.

Jordan started completing more schoolwork, asking for help with the hard stuff, and it became apparent that despite being promoted all the way to fourth grade, he could barely read. He had spent five tumultuous years in an environment that he couldn’t keep up with. Those ripped papers and thrown textbooks covered that up – until now. Together he and I began to tackle his learning difficulties, and bit by bit he improved.

His fellow students were also willing to give him a clean slate. With lots of guidance and support, Jordan began to develop relationships with his peers. The hood came down. The fists relaxed. And in their place there grew a happy, funny guy. He had us in stitches on the daily with his dry wisecracks.

It turned out he knew a lot about the world, too – Discovery was his favorite channel and science his favorite subject. He formed a tight bond with three classmates and they teamed up on science projects, in the gym, and on the yard. For the first time, he had friends, real friends.

The rest of the year passed quickly, as they all do. A class discussion reflecting on the year for our memory books led to someone saying, “Remember when Jordan used to be mad all the time?” I tensed up waiting for his response.

He smiled, slowly, and said, “I remember… but that’s not me anymore.”

Jordan gave himself a clean slate, too.

On the last day, his mom came to pick him up, and while he ran around in the summer sunshine with his buddies, with tears in her eyes she thanked me for changing their lives. His school issues had colored every part of their life at home, his anger and fights, misery and suspensions bleeding over into home life. Now she could read with him, practice his times tables, and not flinch every time the phone rang during the school day.

The tears began flowing freely as she added, “You know, no one in the family knew what to do with him. There was always conflict. Except for my father. He just had a way with him. The bush was their place and Dad always said that Jordan was a different kid out there. Relaxed, you know? So when he died this fall, I thought we were done for. I thought this school year would be the worst one yet. Instead, it’s been the best. I just can’t thank you enough.”

My heart dropped. That morning in the fall came rushing back with crystal clarity. Jordan had broken the school rule, come in early, looking for Grandpa’s duck whistle. He’d left it in his desk, and Grandpa had died suddenly. The only thing on his mind that morning after the funeral was to make sure the whistle was still there.

And with horror I realized I’d almost sent him away.

Here’s the thing. As educators, we don’t know what has happened in a child’s life this morning, or yesterday, or last year. We only see their clumsy, immature or violent ways of handling issues. It’s really big stuff sometimes, pain that would break the best of us.

Because of Jordan, I will never send another child away, without first asking for the story. And I always focus on the relationships before the rules and responsibilities.

Because of Jordan, I learned that there is ALWAYS something to like about every little kiddo we come across. Sometimes, it just takes more time to find. And when you do, you can find that chink in their armor, and slowly, carefully worm your way past the defenses and into their heart.

Every kid deserves a clean slate, a fresh start, and it begins with the power of positive relationships.

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Anne Lefebvre

Legend

I grew up in the city but now call small-town Ontario, Canada home, along with my husband and two teenage boys. I’m a passionate elementary school educator, but when I’m not at school you can find me playing a sport, reading, or drinking a cup of tea.

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