The teacher didn’t read my name on the first day of Kindergarten. Well, not right away.
We were all seated on the floor in front of Mrs. McCreath who was trying to maintain a sense of calm while she worked her way through the class roster that she had been provided. For most of us, this would have been the first time in our rather short lives that we had heard our full names spoken by an adult other than our parents. (It was only when I was in trouble at home that my mother took the time to attach a surname to her “becks” or “calls”)
We all listened intently, waiting to respond, “HERE“, when our names were called. At that point, we didn’t really having much familiarity with alphabetical lists. Heck, we were still learning the alphabet! I recall taking a small breath of anticipation each time Mrs. C. moved from one name to the next until that fateful moment when she looked up from her page and asked, “Have I forgotten anyone?”
At first, I was afraid to say anything, but then Paul, my friend from down the street, piped up and announced, “You missed Stephen!” I didn’t move but looked straight at Mrs. C. who, a little flustered, looked at me, looked at her list and then looked back at me.
“Stephen Hurley?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, in my five year-old voice. (I really do remember this.)
“Oh, yes, here you are!”, as if I had been lost and suddenly found.
(That first experience of school has had a lasting effect on me; to this day, I’m still secretly afraid that my name won’t be on the list. Whether I’m at an airport, attending a conference or showing up for a dinner reservation, there’s always this tiny moment of anxiety when I approach the counter or registration desk. )
Fast forward several years and I’m having a tough time keeping up with life in Grade 8. At the time, I was attending a junior highschool that had been inspired by a stroke of insight: “Let’s gather all of Grade 7 and 8 students from right across the District into a single building.”
It was the early ’70’s and, at 12 years of age, I was looking desperately for a way to fit in. Coming from a rather conservative family, I wasn’t permitted to wear long hair or blue jeans. I didn’t play sports, but I did play the piano—rather well. There was nothing that set me apart academically; I was an average student with a tendency to struggle in Math class. I didn’t have a dirt bike, but I did have a paper route!
You get the picture!
In January of my grade eight year, I decided that it would be better if I took a little time away from school. I managed to get my parents to believe that the brief flu bug that kept me home for a couple of days was a little more serious than we first thought. It only took a little imagination and the occasional groan to get my mom to buy into the fact that I wasn’t well enough to go to school. Miraculously, I started feeling better on the weekends, only to have the aches and pains return Sunday night, usually near the end of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.
For two and half weeks, I managed to stay at home, read books, watch TV, drink flat ginger ale and eat dry toast. On the Wednesday of the third week, my teacher finally called to see how I was doing. She told my mom that she would be sending work home for me that evening.
Guess what? I was back at school the next day! It had taken a couple of weeks, but someone finally noticed that I wasn’t there.
In a few days, children and adolescents from all over the country will be heading to school, some for the very first time and others for their final year. I have come to believe that, regardless of their age, their academic or their social standing, each and every student who walks through the doors of our schools and classrooms makes one fundamental request:
“Please recognize me.”
Recognition. It’s about more than noticing the things that they are good at, or even the things that they are not so good at. It’s about more than looking at the way that they behave, their test scores or their extra-curricular accomplishments. It’s about more than qualifying for an Award of Recognition.
The recognition that they are seeking is more fundamental than that. It comes before curriculum, and it comes way before marks. It precedes things that we normally consider noteworthy and of importance. It is rooted in the fact that they are human beings.
In requesting, if not demanding of us, “Please recognize me,” our children are really saying, “Please don’t allow me to be ignored. Please don’t let me disappear. Please, let me come to life before your very eyes!”
Anyone familiar with today’s classrooms will be aware of how the demands of the job can, at times, cloud our vision, preventing us from responding to this basic call for recognition. Add to that the increasing tendency to want to reduce and simplify things, resulting in rather monolithic conceptions, if not ideals, of Student, Teacher—even Parent.
For a large number of us, answering the call for recognition is what brought us to this work in the first place. Many who leave the profession early cite being frustrated and discouraged by their inability to adequately respond to that same call. To be sure, it is what grounds the sense that a life in education is a vocation.
Ensuring that every child hears their full name called on the first day of school, or is noticed when they are absent, are really just my own proxies for recognition—based on my own personal story. I know that many of you have experiences of your own. I also know that I’m not the only one thinking about this as we approach the first day of another school year.
The request to be recgonized is an essential part of what it means to be human, as is the desire to respond. I would love to hear your own stories of recognition and the deeper ways that you struggle to answer the call that your students will present to you in the days and weeks to come.
Recognition: “Yes, here you are!” “Yes, here I am!”