Each year, I get a little better at understanding what it means to support my students. My first year, I had no clue. I thought that to be a good teacher I would just need to be like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds; that if I handed out candy bars and told my students that they matter, they would instantly cooperate and do whatever I ask.
(No offense, Hollywood, but that’s a ton of crap.)
Now that I have the teaching thing more under control, I’m able to support my students as people. I look forward to their concerts for choir, orchestra, and band. I love seeing the artwork they create. I’m always psyched for the night of the talent show and the school plays. But sports games are another story.
You see, I work in a district whose neighborhoods represent a variety of income brackets. Some schools in the district are a part of one of the country’s wealthiest zip codes. Other schools, Title I schools like mine, are in a different part of town and have a high percentage of students labeled at-risk and on free or reduced lunch. When my school’s sports teams play against schools similar to ours, it’s usually fine. But sometimes when we play the more wealthy schools, it’s difficult for me to be there on the sidelines.
A few weeks ago, some of my students on the boys’ basketball team asked if I would come to their game that evening. I told them I would, then asked who they were playing.
“Woodridge!” they told me. “We’re going to beat them this year, Miss!”
My heart sank.
Woodridge Middle School (which is not actually the school’s name), is the wealthiest school in the district. They consistently have the highest test scores, the greatest amount of parent involvement and financial support, and easily the best sports teams. I can count the number of times I have seen or heard of our teams beating theirs on one hand.
“I’ll be there!” I told them. I gave them a thumbs-up.
After they left, I let out a sigh. My boys were so excited, and I’d already told them I would go. I did want to support them and let them know how much I value them and their interests, but I already dreaded going. I knew what would await me.
I knew I would see the look on my students’ faces as they stole glances at the other team warming up. They would see their brand-new shoes. Their effortless lay-ups from years of playing in community leagues, their camaraderie from knowing each other since kindergarten because they don’t move as much as the families at my school do.
I knew I would see the Woodridge side of the bleachers full—parents, grandparents, siblings, and students who were able to have their parents drop them back off at school just to see the game. I would look at our side of the bleachers and see about half as many people there. I would know that one of our players’ mom works the night shift and will never see a game. I would know that less than half of our players would ever have both parents there cheering them on.
I knew I would hear the parents of the other team grumbling—sometimes quietly, sometimes belligerently-- about my students’ fouls, their lack of sportsmanship, and I would know that they are right, and I would wish that these parents could understand that these kids aren't bad or scary but are learning.
I knew I would hear one particularly loud Woodridge parent yell something like, “What are you doing, ref? Are you just going to let number 55 stomp all over our boys?” and I would see number 55, my student, and he would hear it, and I would see his face tense up with a rage that know runs much deeper than this basketball game and I would see him miss all his free throws after that.
I knew I would watch Woodridge take the lead by ten points, then twenty, then fifty. Then I would see the Woodridge coach call a time-out, and in the huddle all his players would smile suddenly, and I would know that the coach had just told his players that they have to stop scoring.
Then after that I knew I would see a Woodridge player make a lay-up, and his point guard would shout, “Hey, coach said we’re not supposed to score!” and the other player would shout back, “What am I supposed to do, just give it to them?”, and I would see the look on my players’ faces as this exchange would happen.
Then I knew I would go up to my students after the game. I would say, “Hey, you did great!” and they would hang their heads and mumble something, and they would all look like their spirits had been punctured, and I would get a lump in my throat because I would know how much this game meant to them, and they would know that I was saying what I was saying to make them feel better.
I knew these things because it always happens. Every year, year after year, every game when we play teams like this.
And I hate watching it. When I go to games where we play Woodridge or schools similar to them, I distract myself from what’s going on around me by being obnoxiously upbeat to the point where I often annoy myself. I bring posters. I yell things about sports that don’t make any sense (i.e. “GET THIS REBOUND, WOLVERINES!” when it’s about to be the first shot of a set of two free throws.) I do this in the hope that their crazy, screaming teacher will, by comparison, make losing feel just a little less embarrassing.
I should be clear that I’m not trying to say I hate going to games because of Woodridge, or that this is Woodridge’s fault. They are not bad people—the coaches, the parents, the players. In fact, I went to a school like Woodridge and I very much value my education and childhood there. I don’t hate Woodridge. And I don’t hate the fact that my students lose.
I hate poverty.
I hate the systems in place that are keeping down neighborhoods like the one where I teach.
I hate that my students have less of a chance—at everything—because of circumstances they can’t help.
I hate how their sports games remind me of all of this.
And most of all, I hate that I don’t know what to do about it except to keep teaching in my little classroom, to keep hoping things get better, to keep showing up, and to keep being loud.
We actually beat Woodridge in that game a few weeks ago. It was a nailbiter—I’m pretty sure it took a couple of years off my life—but we came out on top. My boys were true sportsmen, in every sense of the word. When I talked to them after the game, they didn’t say anything negative about the other team, or the Woodridge fans being vocal at the refs (and on some occasions, at them), or even about winning. In fact, they could barely say anything because of how huge their smiles were. The second I got into my car in the parking lot, I put my head in my hands and cried.
It felt like I’d just had a small taste of the world I dream of.