▲ The author's students, carried away by the tide of a sports day. Photo by Alpha Newberry
“Nothing gold can stay.” At least that's what Robert Frost said in a poem so named. In one case, I agree. My students cannot stay. March comes, and in Korea that means the beginning of a new school year. Sweep the classrooms, erase the drawings from the desktops, make the schedules, finalize the syllabus, sharpen the pencils, take out that plant that didn't survive last semester, be sure you are well stocked with tissues, and enjoy the calm before the storm. Of course, go to graduation. In come the little ones, fresh from kindergarten. Out go the ones I know so well, from sixth grade to middle school.
On March 2 I will remember how it feels to teach a kindergartener, and the work done over the last year, work that finally made my first graders into solid and mostly-disciplined students, will begin anew. Lots of songs, Simon Says, the quiet game and sticker charts will be my arsenal. These, and regular trips downstairs to bring a dedicated teacher into the room with me. Kindergarteners are new to the world that my sixth graders now leave, and perhaps their particular place in it is the best foil for middle school.
My youngest are un-self-conscious. Unable to hide their feelings, they are like little mirrors. Show a smile and you get a real one right back. Their world is ever-changing, and anything bad that happens today will likely be forgotten tomorrow. Once everyone says “I'm sorry,” any fight is over. Play resumes. The children don’t hold a grudge. They wake up each day and come to school without their armor.
This world has kept me teaching. Weary of corporate maneuvering and jockeying for promotions, I found the classroom to be refreshing. It is a place where people, small people, actually say what they mean and act how they feel. Upon arrival I was disarmed, and it is safe to say that over the first months, when I knew little about teaching, the children taught me far more than I taught them.
My sixth grade students are no exception. Though definitely more self-conscious, at least enough to wipe their noses, they still have much of the freedom of the youngest. They are not afraid to speak like a robot or a monster in front of the class. I watch them tell each other the most fantastic stories, complete with pantomime. But middle school will be a different place with a more established social hierarchy. Perhaps the boys will start to ask themselves more if they look cool in front of the girls and vice versa. Perhaps they will have to stand up to bullying. Or maybe they will find that they are the cool kids after all. “Are you nervous?” I asked Seung-eun, one of my star sixth graders. “Yes. Very.”
I shouldn't get too worked up though. They have a long way to go before the corporate world, and middle school also has teachers to look after them. Maybe parenting will be like teaching. If only I could put things in perspective for them in a way they would understand.
But there is work to be done. It’s a busy world, and there are phonics to teach, tears to be wiped, funny faces to be made, Simons to be said, snack parties to be had, and more sixth graders on the way. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders,” which referenced Frost’s poem and was also made into a movie. As Johnny, of Hinton’s novel, would say, stay gold Seung-eun.
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