Many students come through our school and my classroom year after year. I've had the honor of teaching an average of 800 in my eight years. But sometimes there are those few that stand out from the rest. For the sake of privacy, let's call one particular student Paul. Paul was a troublemaker, missed a lot of school, and had trouble at home. His clothes were worn and dirty looking so people felt bad for him, but overall he was just more work than most students. And with a class of 20-30 others, it's hard to give one person as much attention (or in his case it seemed to be babysitting) as he needed.
One day an aide observed him in my 9th grade English class and afterward told me that he had noticed that Paul often tries to participate, but he doesn't necessarily comply with the usual methods...but would I please look for his efforts? Of course I would. The next day Paul didn't have his textbook, so I let him use mine. We were reading "Romeo and Juliet" so I didn't expect him to follow along for long. As we read he seemed to doodle and talk to himself a little. After reading, I asked a question. I cannot remember what I asked, only that Paul spoke up. He didn't raise his hand, he didn't phrase the answer a specific way...just blurted what he had to say straight out. Luckily, before I reacted, I realized he was answering my question and his answer was absolutely correct. This short, scrawny, rough acting, tough talking punk had zeroed in on a piece of Shakespeare and understood it absolutely. I asked another question and he nailed it. The aide was right, teachers (myself included up to this point) often reacted to Paul's carriage and ways, not noticing that they were sometimes attempts to participate and only attempts at trouble after he'd been shut down.
Snow came later that (school) year, January and February. Driving down the center of town to get to work, I saw certain students waiting at bus stops every morning. In a week's time I noticed Paul standing at the end of his road in a short sleeved shirt, no coat. Not even a jacket. That weekend my husband and I were at Kohl's and we wondered past a rack of boys winter coats marked down from $100 to $10! There wasn't a second thought that I needed to get one for Paul. I wanted to get the blue, being my favorite color, but my husband insisted on the red and black, since it was our school's colors. I mentioned it to a teacher that worked closely with Paul over the past few years and she said that she wasn't sure how he'd react to me offering a coat. He had mentioned dry lips the week before and when she offered him a new Chapstick he was offended and asked her did she think he couldn't get his own? (It's likely he couldn't and it was this sense of pride I didn't want to run up against or offend.)
So that day in class I told him to make sure he came to school the next day because I had a surprise. I was hoping that giving him a heads up would help stimulate his interest and soothe any ruffled feathers. He said ok and was in school the next day. After class he followed me to my office (I was a classroom-less teacher at the time, teaching in different available classrooms throughout the day). I told him I had noticed he didn't wear a coat at the bus stop. He claimed it was stolen from his locker and I presented him the new coat.
He was silent. He stared at the coat. His mouth moved a little and I held my breath. I knew I was about to hear it from him as the other teacher had over her offer of Chapstick. He reached ever so slowly for the coat. It was a bulky polar coat with a lining that zipped in and out to create a jacket and a lighter winter coat. He squeezed the material in his fingers and looked up at me.
"Is it ok?" I asked, completely unable to read him.
"It's red," is all he said, simply and quietly.
"Is that bad?" Maybe wearing school colors wasn't so cool. I mean, my husband had been a jock in school, so what did he know?
"Red is my favorite color," he almost whispered. Then a little more enthusiastically, "Thank you." And I watched a 14-year-old boy hug a winter coat to his chest in awe. I watched for him at the bus stop over the next month, the red coat as the tell tale sign that I would see Paul later in the day.