In 1986, I was 10 years old. I sat in a classroom as my heroes took off in the space shuttle Challenger. My world turned upside down as my teacher quietly cried and turned off the television about 80 seconds after launch. I sat waiting for her to tell us what to do next. My heart was broken, but it was time to go to art.
Two weeks later, my mom lost her three year battle to breast cancer. That day I got dressed and went to school. My dad tried to convince me to stay home, but I needed to go. My heart was broken, but it was time for math.
You see, at my house, there were family members sleeping in every room, even the kitchen floor, as we waited for visiting hours each day. After school, I went to the hospital and saw my strong mom in a bed. Some of my school days were spent sitting with my mom while she got her chemo, helping with my younger sister, or cheering up my dad or grandmother. At my house it was more than a 10 year old could handle.
But at school…it was time for math. Then art. Then reading. And I knew what would happen when. And I knew what would happen if. And my teacher knew what was happening at my house and understood me. She made a place for me where routines and rituals kept me safe. When everything else was crazy, she made it clear for me, just by doing what we, as educators do every day. That schedule on the wall was what I needed when I never knew when we’d get to dinner. Those clear expectations (and kind discipline!) were just what I needed when emotions ran high all around me at home. The simple kind words may have been shrugged off then in typical pre-teen fashion, as many middle grade teachers may think, but they landed right in my heart where they were so needed.
We take such things for granted without the realization that we are creating such an important safe home for our students. This is not only crafted with our words and actions but also with the environment we create in the normalcy of our structures and routines–the schedule, the rotation of who organizes the library, the way they put up their math journals. It all matters. Trust me. Don’t minimalize what you do…you are creating someone’s safe place.