Some parts of middle school were very difficult, as is evidence by events described in my last Lessons Learned post, but it wasn't all bad. I had some great experiences when I wasn't fleeing from the malevolent welcome committee.
Two people were sort of lights in the darkness during that time.
The first was a university student from my church who met me at my school in the early morning. We'd sit by one of the locked doors of the school, and she'd read C. S. Lewis's space trilogy to me. That happened about once a week, and that connection helped me to survive that day.
The other angel was my French teacher. She was nice. But most importantly, she saw me. That's all she did, and it was enough. I sucked at French, yet I loved to be in her class because, there, I was seen.
My social studies teacher did not see me, and Social Studies was by far my favourite subject. The teacher told us we could call him by his first name, "Rick." Nobody did. He was the young and cool teacher, and I think he might have only seen the cool kids. I wasn't one of those.
Still, despite his indifference, I had my most memorable learning experiences in Rick's social studies class.
The first was a World War I veteran that came to talk to our class. At that age, I was into such things, so this was incredible. He told us about his experiences in the trenches, and I remember when he talked about the gas. He said that in the early days of the war, they didn't have enough gas masks, so they were told, in the event of a gas attack, to urinate on their handkerchief, and then hold it over their nose and mouth.
When I heard that, I knew that I would have perished in a gas attack. As a twelve-year-old, I knew that I would never put a pee-soaked rag on my face to save my life.
I was so taken by that guest speaker that in 2013, as the centenary of WWI approached, I began reading books about it, and by 2019 I had read well over nearly thirty. And then I decided to teach that war, and its poetry to grade 9 students. And I think that it's all rooted in that old soldier coming into my class to talk about his experiences in the trenches.
The other incredible learning experience from Rick's class that still sticks with me is a research paper I wrote. We got to choose our topics from a list created by the teacher. I chose the "Attica Prison Riot." I had no idea what this was, but it sounded interesting. It was interesting, but even if it wasn't--I had chosen it!
The Attica Prison Riot started on September 9, 1971. Because I was writing my research paper in 1974, there were no resources in our school library, and besides, it was dangerous to be there, so I asked my dad to take me to the Oregon State University library. There I read the daily accounts of the standoff between prisoners and officials in the New York Times and other newspapers on microfiche and microfilm. If you don't know about microfiche and microfilm, do a Google search and then picture a skinny little 12-year-old sitting the bowels of a university library for weeks reading 3-year- old newspaper articles for hours on end.
I was very proud of my paper. I'm sure I got an A. I'm also sure that Rick had no idea how much effort and passion went into that paper--he still didn't see me. But the Attica Prison Riot was mine. I chose it.
I'm not sure if it's normal to remember only two learning experiences from those junior high school years, but that's all I remember. What made these memorable was how engaged I was. As far as I can tell, the WWI veteran was fascinating because he had actually been there—here was an authentic soldier who knew. The research paper might have excited my passion because I was a natural historian who reveled in primary historical sources, but I think it was, for the most part, the choice.
I learned that I want to see my students. All of them. And I want them to know I see them. Not just the ones who ask for attention with humour, engagement, or disruption.
I learned how important it is to bring others into my classroom to provide different perspectives and a bunch of authenticities.
I learned how powerful choice can be for motivating students, as it can lead to sustained learning.