When I first had the opportunity to do my field experience in Riley's class, it was not because of bad behavior that I noticed him. Instead, the reason I noticed Riley was because of the invisible wall I saw built up every time his teacher cracked a joke at his expense in front of the whole class. When all the other kids weren't looking, I noticed a child with few friends who wore the same three pairs of clothes to school every day. I saw past the tough, problem child bravado to see a scared boy living in constant fear of rejection and ridicule. I saw a lonely youth in desperate need of some sort of hope.
Swiftly, God drew me toward Riley and he became my ‘project’. I felt a calling to help Riley feel safe within the classroom and I made it my goal to get him involved in classroom discussion (discussion that wasn't him angrily spouting off how much he hates his school, peers, or teachers) and activities. When all you ever hear from your regular teacher is that you are the lowest level student, or you'll be "lucky if you make it through this year, much less graduate", or be jokingly compared to garbage... what reason do you have to care about school or any of the people in it? Being a silent observer in the back of that classroom, I was clearly able to see Riley's bad behavior was nothing more than a defense mechanism to deflect the hurtful words of authority figures and peers. Riley was scared to let his guard down. He was scared to open his mouth to say anything in class for fear of how his teacher would twist the words and put him down. His peers only followed the behavior and treatment they saw modeled in their teacher... all at the expense of Riley. I watched fellow student and teacher alike dismiss this embittered child as a trouble-maker with no feelings, fears, or dreams.
The first thing Riley ever asked me was, "So, do you like... LIKE kids or something?" It seemed to shock Riley that there may be teachers out there who actually liked and enjoyed being around youths.
"As a matter of fact I do!" I replied to him happily standing beside his desk. This place would become my most prominent station during my time in this classroom. Why? Because standing beside Riley's desk was the only way to ensure he would actually pay attention in class or do the classwork assigned to him.
Unexpectedly, Riley and I, more or less, became allies. He realized I was on his side and seemed not to mind that I stood by his desk and continually reminded him to stay on task, listen close, and not pick a fight with the students sitting around him. When I began teaching, I always made sure to smile at him when he answered a question in class. At the beginning of class, I posted myself at the door to be sure to greet each and every student as they entered. I made sure to always address Riley by name so that he knew he mattered to me. The second question Riley ever asked me was, "So, are you a Christian?"
"What makes you ask that, Riley?" I pondered.
"I don't know, you're nice. You seem like someone who believes in God," was his unsure reply accompanied by a shrug of indifference. I never take it lightly when someone asks me if I'm a Christian. I first feel overwhelmingly blessed that God has chosen me to bear fruit that reflects him, and despite fact I was a visitor in a public school I was not going to stay silent about my faith.
"I do believe in God, Riley. And more importantly than that, I believe God called me to be a teacher... and to be in this class right now even."
"I never understood that," was Riley's reply. Sadly, class started and I was never able to continue that conversation with Riley, but I pray often for the seed that God may have planted in that young boy's heart.
One day, Riley was having a particularly bad day. He was assigned to work in a group of students sitting beside me and as he walked over he let out the strongest curse word I've heard in quite some time. It was really no more than a few seconds, but my mind was racing. In my Classroom Management class we had just discussed students cursing in order to get rise out of their teachers... I knew that was exactly what Riley was doing now. One thing that class taught me is to never give a student the reaction they're expecting, but at the same time I knew I couldn't completely let the curse word slide. I had to say something to show Riley he hadn't gotten to me, but also make it clear it was not to be tolerated. A method we learned in class was when the student swears, call him or her out for saying the craziest word you can think of then steer them back to the material at hand. So I said the first thing that came to my mind, "Fire trucks, Riley? Why in the world are you talking about fire trucks!? You're supposed to be working on propaganda projects. Get back to work man!"
Riley and his classmates stared at me in utter confusion. I really wish I had a snapshot of the looks on those boys' faces. Of all the reactions they had expected me to have (probably something angry and cruel like their normal teacher, with a detention) that had certainly NOT been it.
I went on to teach a few lessons in that class, half of them being about Homer's "The Odyssey". Through this I discovered Riley's hidden genius. Riley knew all about Greek mythology. How? A little, but lovely book series titled "Percy Jackson". Without the threat of embarrassment or attack by the teacher, Riley shined. His enthusiasm for being engaged and sharing his knowledge and interest was so wonderful. When given the opportunity, this trouble-maker was really nothing more than a talented, intelligent young man hiding behind the fear of rejection. Seeing him come out of his shell was so exciting.
I learned so much from this class. Despite the frustration and difficulty of working under a teacher who admitted to me he hates teaching, children, and admitted to me on day one he wished he had chosen a different career... that lack of love and guidance in the classroom brought this overflowing passion into my heart for these students. I never would have imagined caring so strongly about a class, but I felt it deeply for the first time with these students. Teaching found a whole new definition for me. All these kids were special. Good ole Riley perhaps more than any of them... I don't think anyone had ever taken the time to get to know him and see how special he was. All he needed was one person to give him a kind word instead of another detention.
The last question Riley ever asked me was if we could stay in touch after I left. Legally, student teachers are not allowed to give any sort of personal information to their students. I took it as a great compliment thought that Riley had seen that I had gone out of my way to be kind and encouraging to him. I imagine Riley didn't have many people like that in his life. Perhaps, little, untalented, crazy ME had made a difference in someone’s life. When I had to tell him I couldn't give him any of my contact information my heart went out to the sad look on his face. This child was so desperately in need of care and support. Suddenly, I felt God's words filling up my heart. I went full-fledged pep talk on him, haha.
"Riley, you're going to be okay. You are. You are so smart. Remember how you knew more than anything in the class about Greek Mythology? You can do this Riley. I believe in you. You are a bright young man and I know you will do great things. And Riley, I'm sorry. Teachers are human, you know? They make mistakes and they don't always treat you the way they should. I hope you'll forgive them for how badly they've treated you. You can prove them wrong though. I believe in you. I know you're going to be okay. I will be praying for you, alright? You can do this, don't give up."
Riley nodded before slowly turning away from me and walking down the hallway. It's so hard, in that moment I wanted to fix everything. There is this overwhelming need to protect and make things right for these amazing children in such difficult positions. Seeing his sad face I called out after him, "And Riley! No more smoking in the bathroom!" Riley turned, giving me a mischievous teenage smile, "no promises," he replied.
That's the last time I saw Riley. I often wonder what happened to him. I pray for him whenever I think to. I wish I could thank him. I am so thankful for that trouble-making boy... I'm so thankful to God for putting me in that very difficult classroom because it was there that I found my "teacher's heart". I found the God-given burden to love on God children in any and every way that I can. I can never thank God enough for allowing me the opportunity to see God pull his children from the ashes and experience even a moment of great personal success.
I look forward to meeting more Rileys in my life. The Boy Who Taught the Teacher. Despite their need to talk about fire trucks, pick fights, and smoke in the bathroom... I am so excited to see how God is going to allow me to witness a child of his reflecting the glory of a mighty and radiant God of love. What an adventure it will be!
~ Romans 12:6-7