16 years out of the classroom, and I still feel the summer begin to bleed as the corn ripens and what seemed like an endless July surrenders to inevitable August. I haven’t seen the leaves turn red yet, nevertheless, the anxiety of the first day of school creeps into my dreams. I stand before my class, entirely unprepared, even naked sometimes, or blind, the children jumping off their desks, running wildly wherever… God, please wake me up!
After a cup of coffee (or two) has shaken the dread of the dream, I always think of my memorable first day with Leroy, a fourth grade boy who taught me the importance of giving each child the opportunity to express the unique individual God has made them to be. Knowing them well is the first step in drawing out those God-given gifts, and essential for developing the intuition to guide the choices you make in teaching them.
One year I wrote a letter to my prospective fourth graders asking them to collect a box of souvenirs to help recall the events of summer. They would each report on their collection as a way of getting to know each other on the first day of school.
I was teaching in Lexington, MA, a relatively affluent community outside Boston, so I expected to hear about some spectacular summer adventures. One girl went white water rafting in Wyoming. Another, horseback riding in Montana. One boy told about his trip to Australia. Another, about studying bats with his father in the jungles of Borneo. Several spent weeks at various sport camps, perfecting backstrokes, bunts, dribbles, and slap-shots. I was especially envious of Jon and his father, who caught a 140-pound halibut off the shore of Homer, Alaska. Each report was delivered in some detail, clear and organized, accompanied by airline ticket stubs, souvenirs, and spectacular photographs.
But nothing in my years of teaching in Lexington prepared me for Leroy’s summer adventure. Leroy rides a school bus for forty-five minutes every morning from Mattapan, where he lives with his mother and grandfather in a three-room apartment in which he shares a room with his two sisters.
Leroy was excited when his turn came to share his summer adventure. He strode to the front of the room with long, undulating steps. He turned to face the class and presented his box, a shoebox. It was empty. Out of a big grin he spoke with pride and enthusiasm unmatched by his well-traveled classmates. “This summer, my mom got me a new pair of sneakers.” He went on to describe the deal his mom got from “Nick the Greek” and his excitement in taking the sneakers home.
“Stand up on the desk, Leroy, so we can all see.”
He didn’t hesitate. The sneakers were black with white trim, a brand I had never heard of. He towered above the class, almost within reach of the ceiling.
“I got them in the middle of the summer,” he continued, “but my mom wouldn’t let me wear them until the first day of school.”
“Wasn’t that hard?” someone asked.
“Yeah, that was hard, all right.” And then in a whisper in case his mom might be listening over the loudspeaker, “Sometimes at night I’d sneak over and take them out of the box.” His dark eyes glowed with excitement. “I loved to open the lid and smell them.” He gave a deep sniff. “And if my mom went to sleep before me, I would put them on and walk around in my room. But I had to be careful not to wake my sisters.”
He spoke with more passion about those shoes than Jon had about his halibut or Peter had about strange bats in the jungles of Borneo. I believe at that moment anyone in the class would have traded his or her summer excursion for one secret night with Leroy’s sneakers.
“Leroy, I bet you can really jump in those shoes,” I challenged.
“Yeah, I sure can.”
“Here, take this chalk and see how high a mark you can make on the door.”
Leroy got down from the desk. He took the chalk from my hand, hesitating for a moment to see if I was serious. My eyes said, “Hit the moon, Leroy!” He walked over to the door, leapt up, and left a white streak higher than the doorjamb. The class cheered.
“A mighty jump, Leroy!” I cried.
“Yeah,” he said with a knowing smile, “but tomorrow I will be able to jump a lot higher.”
“Why is that?”
“Because it’s my birthday,” was his matter-of-fact reply.
“Why will you be able to jump higher on your birthday?”
“‘Cause it’s my birthday,” he repeated, perturbed at my questioning something so obvious.
“You mean you think that tomorrow when you wake up you will be taller because it’s your birthday?”
“Yeah, I will.” I pressed him on the point. He was certain. I was amazed he could still think this on the eve of his tenth birthday. But he was sure of himself. I didn’t try to convince him otherwise. I would let him find out for himself.
“All right, Leroy. We’ll try again tomorrow and see if you can jump any higher.”
The next day was Leroy’s birthday. I drew my own card, of a pair of sneakers being zapped by bolts of lightning, and put it on the door. The class came in.
“Hey, look Leroy!” they shouted, pointing to the card on the door.
“Cool,” he beamed.
We began our morning work, and it wasn’t until 11:00 that we had time for Leroy to make another jump.
“Are you bigger today?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“Okay,” I said, “let’s see.”
Again Leroy took the chalk from my hand, this time with no hesitation. He crouched down, wound himself up like a spring, and in a sudden burst shot up like a rocket. The white streak flashed above the door. Two inches higher than yesterday’s jump! He looked at me confidently. It was no surprise to him. He had never doubted it.
Someday I would tell him about gradual growth and the difference between older and taller. But his bright confidence at that moment seemed more important than a biologically correct view of physical development. Leroy was ten years old that day, and in the eyes of everyone in room 9, he was two inches taller.
After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.