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Virginia Journal of Education


On Point

What Tammy taught me


by Ellen Holmes

On the first day of school, I lied to my fourth grade students. I said, "I love you all the same and will treat you all alike." Evidence to the contrary was there before me, slumped in her chair.

I had watched Tammy the year before and noticed she didn't play well with the other children, her clothes were unkempt and she constantly needed a bath. To top it off, she was downright unpleasant. Her surly attitude got so bad that I actually delighted in marking her homework papers with a broad red pen and a big 'F' at the top.

Although I was required to review each child's records, I put Tammy's off until last-and was surprised at what I found.

Her first-grade teacher wrote, "Tammy is a bright, inquisitive child with a ready laugh. She enjoys writing and artwork...she is a joy to be around."

Her second-grade teacher wrote, "Tammy started the year as an excellent student, but she has finished the year poorly. She often comes to school appearing troubled and distracted."

Her third-grade teacher wrote, "Tammy is withdrawn and continues to put little effort into her work. She does not have many friends and sometimes sleeps in class."

I knew there was a problem, but I had no time to deal with it. Christmas was coming fast and we had a big autobiography project to do for each student, complete with pictures and stories, as a holiday present.

I was busily holding writer's conferences when I realized Tammy was avoiding me. So, in my best teacher way, I told her that we would meet first thing in the morning. She gave me the blank, sullen look she had shot me all fall.

The next day I called Tammy up to my desk. As usual, when I asked her to read her story she sat back in her chair and defiantly crossed her arms. Since I had more to do than deal with another tantrum, I said, "Fine, I'll read it to you and you listen for changes you think you need to make."

Getting no response, I began to read. I was prepared for missing punctuation, sloppy handwriting, poor spelling, or run-on sentences. I was, however, not prepared for what she neatly, emphatically wrote:

"I hate Christmas. My mother killed herself on Christmas. She left a note saying that she could not handle taking care of me and my brother and all the bills and my dad. We have not had a Christmas tree since then. My father does not like Christmas either. It is my fault that my mother and Christmas went away."

Feeling inadequate and guilty, I began to cry and then, so did she. Through her tears Tammy said that I was the first teacher she had ever told.

I asked if I could share her story with the guidance counselor and her dad. Very quietly, with downcast eyes, she nodded. When the guidance counselor, Tammy's dad and I met, we cried, we laughed-and we learned something important.

I learned that Tammy's mother had struggled with depression for years and the father had worked three jobs to try and hold his family together. Dad learned that his daughter blamed herself, just as he had been blaming himself, although, of course, it was neither one's fault. I also learned that this family of three was living at a motel while dad tried to save enough money for an apartment.

After sharing Tammy's story with my family, we quickly decided to help. We packed up three plates of cookies, two coats for the kids, a game, an art set and a nice dad-sized shirt.

The motel manager was touched and sadly confided that the family was about to be evicted, so we decided right then to pay their rent for the month - and swore the manager to secrecy.

The next morning, I was on outside duty when I felt a vigorous tug on my coat. There, with freshly washed curls, a bright pink coat and a big smile was a radiant Tammy.

She said that Santa had come to her house last night and that she had a present for me. "Do you want me to open it at the party?" I asked, and she yelped, "No! Please open it now. It is the first ever Christmas present I have given on my own."

I carefully opened the kid-inspired, marker-decorated art paper, to find a wad of tissue paper wrapped around a gumball machine ring. Tammy said, "I know you like rings and this has three diamonds in it! My father does not know who Santa is but I do. Thank you."

I wore that ring all day, and off and on for the rest of the school year. The ring has left green stains around my finger and caused a few rashes, but I keep it in my jewelry box with my other treasures.

I keep it to remind myself of Tammy. I keep it to remind myself that gumball machine rings may be diamonds in disguise.

Holmes, a former classroom teacher, now serves as a staff member of the Maine Education Association.


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