He was seven years old. The moment he walked into my classroom on the first day of my teaching career, I feared it was going to be a long year. The wisp of a boy with a freckled face and set smile wore a faded Superman tee shirt that nearly matched his mop of curly red blonde hair. His large brooding eyes averted my gaze.
Before the end of the first week of school I had singled him out as the difficult child in my class. Doesn’t every class have one? No matter what he did, it annoyed me. He slumped in his chair gazing out the window, inattentive to my teaching. He did not turn in homework, and since he lost the first library book he borrowed, he was not allowed to check out another one. He spilled his whole box of crayons on the floor. Everyday. He could not sit still at his desk and talked out of turn. Clearly, no one had ever taught him about taking turns or obeying rules. The other children tolerated him but he had no close friend. And he smelled!
Sometimes the odor was so pungent I sent him to the office with a note for the secretary to find something clean for him to wear from the clothes box and give him a washcloth and soap to wash himself. After a while it became a weekly ritual.
He did excel at one thing. Reading. He progressed quickly through the levels of second, third and even fourth grade. During library time I noticed him in the non-fiction section perusing books like How Things Work and Building Things.
One day during a math lesson, Tanner sat at his desk flipping a piece of cardboard. I snatched it from him, scrunched it in my hand, and put it in my desk drawer intending to scold him during recess. I turned to him with a stern look, but he was not looking at me. He was looking at the floor.
Every Monday my students filed into the classroom at 8 o’clock and did their morning worksheet. Not Tanner. His head nodded and soon lay on top of his paper sound asleep. When I scolded him for staying up too late watching television, he just looked at the floor.
Three months into the school year, it was time to do our Thanksgiving project. I had the children draw self portraits and underneath write a list of things they were thankful for. The last bell of the day rang and all the children placed their creations on my desk and hurried out the door carrying their backpacks. All except Tanner. His head rested on his elbow, but I could see he was writing a few last words. Finally he got up and exited the room leaving his project on his desk.
I watched him walk out. Curious, I walked to his desk. His self- portrait was quite good. No one would question that it was Tanner with his uncombed red hair, freckles, and glazed eyes. Strangely, his mouth had a big toothless grin. I had never seen him grin. Under his self-portrait he had written:
I am thankful for …
a warm car
The next word was smudged. Still damp. I think a tear had fallen there.
The list was not much different than those of the other children. But over the next two months I discovered a deeper meaning to the words he had written. I learned that sometimes he and his dad slept in a beat up car under the bridge with other transients whose drunken tirades on Sunday nights left him sleepless. They frequented the soup kitchen where Miss Rosie doled out homemade soup, bread and cookies. She always had a bag marked with a smiley face for Tanner to take “home.” “Home” was their place under the bridge.
I changed my mind about Tanner. Instead of seeing him as an annoyance, I began to look at him as a vulnerable little boy who needed hope. I wondered how I could give him that.
On Fridays I always chose one student to be Star of the Day, given as a reward for good behavior or excellent school work. Only Tanner’s name remained on my checklist. Could I find anything positive to praise him for in front of the whole class? Yes, true to form, he had spilled his box of crayons all over the floor and wiggled in his chair. But I did see him share his last cookie from Miss Rosie and take turns at the drinking fountain and though it was torn from many erasures, his book report had perfect lettering.
“Star of the Day is Tanner” I announced to the class, “because he did his best today!” I handed him a paper star with his name on it. When I looked at him he was smiling at me. I smiled back.
It was a long year, but a good one. Tanner is a third grader now. His teacher told me he and his dad will be moving to another state this spring. Another school, another bridge, another challenge.
As I was cleaning out my desk at the end of the school year, I found a piece of cardboard scrunched up at the back of the top drawer. I was about to toss the folded and taped object into the wastebasket when I noticed back crayon letters in Tanner’s rough printing. It read, “My Brij.”
According to the dictionary, a bridge is a structure built to provide passage over an obstacle. Tanner was my bridge. I learned more lessons from one little boy than I had taught my students that entire school year. I learned to look beyond outward appearance and smells and behavior. I hope one day Tanner will build real bridges. But for now, I think he’s doing a pretty good job.
This is not a true story but it could be. Inspired by and dedicated to the students and teachers who have touched my life.