There’s nothing like a room full of hormonally challenged boys and girls in the early stages of puberty. Trust me. I taught a year of middle school. Add a couple of factors like ESL (English as a second, third, or fourth language), the need for income to help their struggling families, and a natural desire to challenge the world, and you have Ann C. Smith’s middle-grade ESL classroom. Retired now, she writes about her experiences and her love for her students in her collection of stories called Here! Here as in “present.” We’re showing up for life despite what it’s done to our parents.
Each story focuses on a specific student, his needs, her hopes, their talents, skills, and challenges. Smith’s memories are honest, balanced, and thorough, with the narrator always considering her part in all choices. One day she asked her sixth-grade son why he thought there was a disparity between the scores at her school and his. Instead of giving any of the answers she feared, he said, “Maybe because at your school a lot of students don’t speak English well.”
These are the stories of marginalized students in a school where they are outcasts. Their homes are rooted in a different culture. Combine that with early adolescence and communication challenges, and major issues could ensue. Not that Smith wants readers to feel sorry for them. She runs a classroom where kids can leave their problems outside. They work in groups and cheer each other on. In one story both she and her fourteen-year-old student are pregnant. A late pregnancy and an early one give the two of them a great deal to compare. The student, Irena, took on a leadership role, and before Smith took a pregnancy leave Irena promised that her mother, who had seven children of her own, would watch the baby so she could continue in school.
Sometimes Smith invited lonely kids to her house on a Saturday. Other times she took them to their own homes after school. She even indulged their desire to go to the candy store, a field trip without permission slips that made the former teacher in me cringe. Her assistant principal said, “Do not tell me this. I cannot hear you.” Despite their high spirits, though, these kids were not about to run into the street. They valued the privilege of leaving class and buying candy too much. Smith brought the English language into their lives along with a lot of love, which helped everyone’s self esteem.
While the circumstances of each story vary, the structure remains similar. Kids face problems and a teacher gives them as many skills and as much hope s she can. Obviously she remembers them fondly and perhaps she’s sharing her memories as a call to all of us: accept differences and do what you can to help others.
Anyone who’s ever taught or parented a middle-schooler will enjoy the teacher’s process, the kid’s antics, and the way Smith overcomes bureaucratic hassles.