Written by Mia Ruffin, AmeriCorps Member serving on the Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation Team at Winbourne Elementary School.
She had been telling me for weeks that her family was moving across town. Four different emotions would rush through me each time she told me so.
My most palpable emotion was fear. In my partner teacher’s classroom, the orchestra of "I can’ts," "I won’ts," "I don’ts," "I didn’ts," and "I wasn'ts" blared so loud some days that my nights ended in tears. This was no one’s fault in particular. Convincing some of our students that school can be a comfortable and trusting home is hard. Why should they feel comfortable with the person reprimanding them for yelling the correct answer out loud? Why should they think of school as home when they go to sleep in a place with turbulence and instability? In all of this, she and I shared trust and comfort. I was sensibly afraid to lose this bond.
She couldn’t have known that her words made me angry. Since she had come to Winbourne, her family had been through various stages of transition. Death, imprisonment and displacement amongst the members of her family caused her to arrive at school late or miss days. I was mad that the universe was shifting against her again, as if a developing child’s pace was not already wobbly and uncharted enough.
Her warnings also brought forth pity for myself (the invisible violin concerto begins in 3… 2… 1…). By November, three of my students had left Winbourne due to finances, relocation and other very adult circumstances. Tears, notes and hugs did very little to bandage what was missing: a familiar face from my ferocious band of Warriors. It is important to note that by this time in the year almost all my CY Winbourne teammates had lost a student to similar reasons. School transfers are the norm in our type of school; obviously, expecting to never see a particular child again was becoming normalized. It was also becoming daunting and tragic.
Most immaturely and most embarrassingly, the only emotion I could bare to show to her was doubt. Who was I, as her near peer and her only Ms. Muffin, to introduce more anxiety to her situation? She had no control over where she was to live. Showing panic seemed, and still seems, selfish. I was actively considering how her life circumstances were hurting me. The doubt expressed was a part of a common script with my students. Cue a long homework assignment or hard test.
“UGH! I hate school! I’m leaving and never coming back! Watch! I’m gonna transfer and not do no more stupid stuff like this!”
“Wait, wait… What? Look at me and breathe. What’s wrong?”
“Man… (prepubescent grumbling, verbal frustration, eventual admission of issue)”
“That’s what I thought. I figured you weren’t really considering leaving me. I’d miss you too much… And then who am I going to bother and hug all day?”
But this wasn’t that at all.
She had been warning me for weeks, into the Thanksgiving holiday and approaching Christmas. Breath met me when my whole class from December filled every seat during the first week of January. One day during an intervention that week she said that she would not see me again.
“Can you visit me? I don’t know our address yet but can you come after you leave here?”
“I don’t think I can because of the work I do but why do you ask that?”
“My mama and my mawmaw got a apartment out in Scotlandville so I can’t go to this school no more. I only came today because my mama let me but only one last time.”
That emotional cocktail swam down my throat, swirled in my head and gave me slight shivers. I thought we were done with her leaving! I sat next to her the rest of the school day and she held my arm like a baby. I don’t know who found more resolve in her tiny arrest, me or her. The next day, she did not come. The next day the girls at her table reminded me (as if I had forgotten) that she had been talking about dropping. The following day she was not back but she had not officially dropped. No parent or guardian talked to my partner teacher. Her information was still in our system. The week would end without a word of confirmation.
The next week began and a particularly dutious student and I took a trip to the office to turn in her textbooks. He and I talked about how we missed her, along with everyone else who had dropped since last fall. Another two days would pass. I walked into the classroom with a dry erase board, two color counters and a folder full of packets. The door stayed open behind me. I put down my materials to check to see why it hadn’t closed. It was her, with ponytails and pink bubble coat in place. When 20 people all see a ghost at the same time, it is a stupefying and silent thing. The day quickly went from spectacular to normal, which is always a dream in an elementary school. We were all present.
In reflection of my relationship with that student, City Year has altered how I see complexity and empathy. I thank City Year for making the power of young people transparently clear. Each of us, whether a sage or an adventurer, is a member of the world’s constant turning and evolvement.