gratitude in the grind

At this point in the year, it seems everyone is ready for the holidays; the kids are ornery, the teachers crabby. Much of my own daily happenings are routine by now, adding to the mundane atmosphere. All in all, it can be a blah mood within the walls of Perspectives.  But even in the gloom, bright cracks have found their way.

I walked into the cafeteria last week, and an eighth-grade boy came up to me to say, “Mr. Tortelli, you get a Turkey-gram?” With my mind in a million other places, it sadly took me a moment to figure out what he was talking about.  It was an assignment that was given to the middle school students in their Disciplined Life classes. Here, each student writes a turkey themed telegram to a teacher, security staff, lunchroom or maintenance member or anyone else on staff about how grateful they are for said individual. At the time I highly doubted I, as a first year volunteer teachers-assistant with a last name that still has kids trippin’, would be receiving one of these kind and cute affirmations when it seemed only the well-seasoned, easier to pronounce staff members were getting them.

“No, I haven’t,” I told him. “I don’t have a desk for deliveries.” He laughed and shook my hand. “Oh, they’re probably gonna deliver it right to you. I wrote one for you to say thanks for helping me on my math test.” First off, I didn’t know who “they” were. For all I knew, there was a poultry-themed thank you letter crumpled up in the bottom of a muddy backpack getting pummeled by books, candy and sneakers never to be seen again. Secondly, I didn’t really care where it was, or if I ever got the chance to see it.  This was truly kind, and absolutely warming, but to get to the heart of why this Turkey-gram meant so much, you must hear the back story:

This same student has had his fair share of setbacks. Behaviorally and academically, he struggles. Very cordial and kind when talking one-on-one, he prefers to zone out, talk to other students or “discover” the fine inner-workings of writing utensils instead of paying attention to lessons when working alone.

At the end of my first day of interventions – in-class tutoring – with him, it didn’t look like we’d be going far this year. I spent as much time that day getting him to stop cracking jokes and pens as I did rehashing algebra. Every day since, we’ve tried and tried again; working one-one-one after the teacher has given her directions, trying our hardest just to reinforce the new material.

I’ve tried being more lighthearted with him in our on-on-ones. He’s responded better when the pressure of his classmates isn’t as high, and I think he’s even grown to enjoy class a bit more. To this moment it’s become a point of familiarity, or a checkpoint throughout his day. We see each other in an earlier class too and he always makes sure to ask, “You gonna pull me out of math today?”

During those first few weeks, there were definitely moments of hope; good marks on class work, getting problems correct on homework, more participation in class and so on. He even began beating me to the punch with a lot of the practice problems and getting them done without my help. However, the progress often stalled and seemed marginal. There were just as many instances where he would be marked for things like “incorrect”, “incomplete”, “needs to show work”. Even after the third week of learning “how to find the missing side length of triangles”, it was a stretch to get him to identify which side is the hypotenuse.  For those like me who shamefully can’t remember on their own, a hypotenuse is the side opposite of the right angle.

As our triangle unit was ending, there was a looming two-part test that drew nearer and nearer. I was getting anxious: from my own bad math experiences to the realization that this student wasn’t doing well in class, I couldn’t help but be a little fearful. The day before the test, while working alone on a review sheet, he could barely answer the first two hypotenuse questions on his own, and even when he did they were incorrect. I left our class thinking that I’d failed him and assumed the next time we’d see each other it’d be with a fat F and a mindset of a hard year ahead.

It wasn’t until he pulled me aside at the end of the next day (part one of the test) to tell me, again nonchalantly, how wrong I was:

“Mr. Tortelli, she [his teacher] graded my test in class and said I got an A.”

He’s lying, I thought. “Say what?”

“Yeah, she graded it and said I better do just as good tomorrow on the next part.”

He cheated. No way he passed, let alone aced! He must have written the answers on his hands… something!

He reached to shake my hand. Clean as a whistle.

Meanwhile his teacher, hearing our conversation from her room, steps out to congratulate the two of us and, more importantly, verify that “He’s telling the truth!”

For me, the Turkey-gram itself was cool, but more than anything it was a reminder that the grind isn’t all-encompassing. He got an A, and we know there’s a long way to go with him both in this class and beyond. Yes I may never get another Holiday-gram or even an “I aced the test!”, but now he and I can both see there are outcomes to work for, reasons to push through the difficult and routine times. Our actions and progress, easily found or not, do go noticed. Appreciation is out there, and its effects are mutual for all.

For more on gratitude, check out this awesome video:

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