“Sneak attack!” Miguel screams as he hurdles himself towards me for the fifth time today. It’s only 8:10AM – exactly one hour since he entered my classroom – and I feel my ribs crack for what seems like the hundredth time this week. His six-year-old arms slid around my waste, tightening like an angry cobra, and he rests his head right into my ‘pillow,’ he calls it – but I call it a stomach.
I wince – he’s not letting go anytime soon – and a giggle breaks out on the carpet. As I was right in the middle of explaining how to add three two-digit numbers together, Miguel’s aggressive-but-loving ‘sneak attack’ jolted my body so hard, it sent my chalk flying across the floor. “Alright, my love,” I say. “It’s time for Number Corner, so I need you to sit down.” He unlatches his arms from my burning ribcage and peers up at me with the most adorable, dopey grin, his eyes gleaming from underneath his race-car stripped glasses. Despite my aching ribs, it is moments like this that illustrate the intensive joy and growth I’ve seen in Miguel and my other first grade students.
Just six months ago, Miguel was so jarred by human contact that an accidental brush with a classmate in line sent him hurtling out of the school just feet away from the middle of a busy Austin street, haunted by the physical and verbal attacks he experienced in his former public school. I reminded myself that he deserves so much better than a not-so-patient teacher with a lesson to get through before the art teacher arrives. His playful yearning for connection and contact erased my frustration and growing worry that he was distracting 22 other souls on my carpet.
I flash a wink at the class, turn back to Miguel, and struggle to pretend-frown. “Wait,” I call. “Sneak attack!” I open my arms and Miguel jumps in, smiling and giggling. “Okay, you win!” I sing. “You are the sneakiest sneak in the whole wide world!”
In this moment, Miguel’s exponential progress – and my classroom – is summarized best by a quote from Miguel’s mother: “Su corazón, por primera vez, es aprender la alegría.” His heart, for the first time, is learning joy. My teaching style is simple: we celebrate the small things, find joy in everything around us, and find beauty in growing pains. The most important thing I will ever teach a child is this: we are all beautiful because of our differences, not in spite of them. I teach joy, and the gentle and tremendous growth my students make because it leaves me breathless.
This progress, despite the odds stacked against these prodigious little estrellas, is my most feverous passion. These sneak attacks are the reasons why I teach at a public charter school. Miguel’s family was given the choice – their choice – to find a school that would celebrate, not diminish, their child. I teach at a public charter school so mothers can choose who teaches – and loves, and celebrates – their child. Miguel’s name and some details for his story have been changed, but the imprint he left on my heart – and my belief in charter schools – has not. Seeing his progress and growth, from being afraid of physical contact to a big bundle of never-ending sneak-attack joy, is the biggest blessing I’ve ever had the honor of receiving.
KIPP Comunidad, Austin