He was milling around, shuffling the same papers over and over again. Tying his shoe. Trying desperately to look like he wasn’t girding himself for the conversation ahead. Like he wanted me to see he needed to talk but not as much as he didn’t want other kids to see he needed to talk.
Finally, the last student left, and, man, he didn’t waste time.
“Mr. Kulak. Am I ugly?”
At first, I sort of giggled to validate that his ice breaker was clever. But when I looked at him and saw tears start to well up, I recognized that this was a kid in pain.
“What? Why would you think that?” I began.
“Because it’s true. I just wanted someone else to tell me it’s true. Girls won’t talk to me. They won’t even look at me, so I must be ugly or something.”
Dave was a senior in high school. He had patchy facial hair, tinted glasses, and he spoke with a slight lisp. He was also very kind, determined, and funny. But he wasn’t asking me about personality traits. He was expecting an answer about how he looked, about vanity, about the part of himself that showed up first. Before the rest of who he was even made it through the door.
“Dude, you are not ugly. Besides who even decides these things? I mean look at me. I’m in my 30s, I have ears that look like open cab doors, awful hair, and I still have pimples. Am I ugly?”
I could see him start to breathe differently. His eyes dried up a bit. I think the corners of his mouth started to form a slight smile before thinking better of it. He wasn’t prepared for me to flip the script on him, and it worked.
“No, I wouldn’t say you’re ugly,” he said.
“And I wouldn’t say you’re ugly. In fact, I probably wouldn’t use that word for anyone. At least not to describe how they look.”
He stayed in my room through lunch and during most of my prep. I just wanted to keep him talking, get him to laugh a bit, and allow him to leave when he was good and ready. Nothing I had to do was more important than that conversation.
There’s no way for us to prepare for these kinds of experiences with our kids. No overpriced and underused textbook on Answering Students’ Difficult Personal Questions exists. However, Dave came to me because he trusted me, because I made a conscious and concerted effort to connect with my kids long before I asked them to even consider the content of the class.
As you start a new year, pay attention to subtleties. Pay attention to everything. You’ll have countless Daves walk through your door, each with a unique and personal backstory. To commit to learning such backstories takes time, patience, and emotional wherewithal, but, as I see it, we don’t really have a choice.
That stinkin’ piece of dirt followed me everywhere for days. Its resilience impressive, its ingenuity unparalleled, its resolve intimidating. Three days, three pairs of shoes, three completely separate but equal segments of my life lived with the same piece of dirt.
To chart its course would be impossible, but if I had to guess, the dirt first entered my life during my weekly baseball game. Likely, I acquired it while playing, it glommed onto my sock, transfered from my cleats to my slides, and came home with me that Sunday. Once it had successfully infiltrated my home, it lied in wait until it could make yet another move, this time to my comfy slippers, which I wear ad nauseum. Once inside, that sucker set up shop, making itself known intermittently, mocking me mercilessly.
Now, the layperson might ask, “why not just shake it out of your slipper? Why live with such a menacing presence when you were wholly capable of removing it?” Good questions indeed, but here’s the thing: I didn’t always know it was there. The brilliance of the dirt was that it made itself known when it felt like it, at odd times when I’d be in the middle of something else. Like a song lyric or childhood memory that arrives and leaves fleetingly, so you can’t remember what it was minutes later. That was my dirt companion. So while I could have easily shaken it out any number of times, for some reason, I didn’t. Maybe I grew to accept the dirt as part of my life. Maybe I subconsciously began to need the dirt like some demented Stockholm Syndrome sufferer. Maybe I live in such a perpetual state of doing that the thought of stopping to remove the dirt terrified me.
Finally, after three days, the Biblical implication of which is not lost on me, I finally bid the dirt farewell. No speeches. No pomp and circumstance. No vigil. Just an upside down Ugg shaken loosely in the middle of my kitchen. I often think of that piece of dirt and wonder where it is now. Does it like its new home? Does it miss me?
As educators, we have the ability to become the pieces of dirt for our kids and for each other. While that may not be the most glamorous analogy, think about something you said to a student, in public or in confidence, that will always stay with them. Think about how, to extend the analogy, as students travel through their lives, the impact you had on them transfers from shoe to shoe, life event to life event. Like so many granules of dirt, we may not consider ourselves special, we may not understand how we function as part of a larger collection of dirt, and we may not purposely attach ourselves to the bottom of feet, but that doesn’t make any of those things less true.
In fact, it’s often the insignificance that is significant. I can’t tell you how many times a former student has referred to something I said or something we shared as being momentous, something she’ll “never forget.”
Because for us, there are millions of those moments, those pieces of dirt, so it would be impossible for us to keep up. But for them, what they’re referencing is their experience, their unshakable nuisance, their piece of dirt.
And maybe they don’t want to get rid of it just yet.
When we arrived at the rescue shelter that Sunday morning, I knew I didn’t have a choice.
Surreptitiously, my wife had begun graduate level research on what would become our next dog, and though she couched the idea to visit a Philadelphia shelter as “just a visit,” I have a feeling contracts were already drawn up and that everyone was in on the ruse. Except me.
With pinpoint accuracy (how many times had she been here?), she directed us to the kennel of a sweet, malnourished, Bichon Frise named Polly. Instantly, Polly meandered over and lent credence to the power of the expression “puppy dog eyes.” At that point, I was convinced that even she was in on the con. She knew she was coming home with us.
After spending a few minutes with her outside, we requested the paperwork to be drawn up. It was our 11th anniversary, and our kids didn’t know we’d be coming home with a new dog. Clearly, it was going to be a good day.
However, something about Polly, who would quickly become Daisy at our daughter’s request, was off. Sure she was underweight, she needed a haircut, and her eyes had dark patches under them, but it was something else.
She didn’t bark. At all.
While the thought of a silent dog does have its merits, a dog without a bark is like a child without a voice. Daisy had been debarked. She had no voice.
Without being too graphic, the Pennsylvania Amish Country puppy mill from which Daisy was rescued was horrifying. My wife found pictures of it, of Daisy, online shortly after we brought her home. Among other atrocities, debarking dogs is fairly common. Frankly, the whole idea of puppy mills is unconscionable to us both.
But a funny thing happened a few months into her transition into our family. When she gets excited to go for a “walkie” each day, like most dogs, she prances around, pants, and leads one of us to her leash and to the door.
At first, she just jumped up on my legs to affirm that she was, indeed, interested in the walk.
But then one day she barked.
It was strained and almost scratchy, but make no mistake, Daisy had found her voice.
The importance and power of student voice has inserted itself into PD plans, book proposals, and Twitter chats across the nation. It’s about time. Finally, and in some deeply entrenched traditional districts, begrudgingly, adults are starting to frame their thinking around student voice. Decision making committees are beginning to include kids. Class libraries, Makerspaces, and common areas are taking shape with students at the helm. Social-emotional learning strategies and practices are considered by kids rather than for kids.
At long last, adults who have preached their love of children as the driving force behind their careers in education are replacing themselves with children as they look in the mirror.
We cannot underestimate the power of voice.
To return to Daisy, she is a completely different dog. The same dog who didn’t know how to go up or down stairs, who longed so desperately for human affection, and who had no idea Beggin’ Strips were a thing, is now playful, spunky, and, quite frankly, proud of her voice. She uses it with impunity, believe me.
Now, think about all the students you have taught, and have yet to teach, who found their voice. There’s an authentic glow and a stifled smile that accompanies that realization. For some, it happens, well, in utero (see: my own kids). For others, it happens in elementary school as they feel their way through letters, sounds, and numbers. For still others, it happens much later when they meet a teacher who gives them agency and audience, perhaps for the first time.
Voice, even in bark form, is the purest form of identity. Without it, students are reduced to a SMID, a plotted point on a data table, a standardized test score. With it, they are elevated and empowered; they are resilient and fierce; they are who we want them to be without us telling them who we want them to be.
They’re us before we became us.
As you plan your PD for the year, as you look at your budgets for next year, as you devise your district’s strategic plan, as you do anything that directly affects kids, give them a voice. Call them together, form a student leadership team, ask them to complete a Google Form. Take them seriously, praise their contributions, compliment their parents.