About twenty years ago my teacher duty found me monitoring elementary children who arrived before the 7:45 bell. Most days this included a bunch of bus kids whose drivers obviously didn't get the memo about NOT arriving before 7:45.
In November of that year I noticed a new boy sitting by himself, keeping his head down. The next day he again sat by himself amidst kids greeting friends and beginning the day's sharing and telling. The third day I went over and sat next to him, starting up a conversation. He told me he'd already been in three different schools since school started and from there, we talked about lots of things. He became my early morning bench buddy; each morning our voices joined the others.
About three days before Christmas break he handed me a small, brown paper sack saying, "I know this isn't much, but I wanted to get you something for Christmas. You have been my only friend." I opened the sack and inside was an slightly used artist's paintbrush. As I took it out he continued, "I found this at home and cleaned it up the best I could. I thought you might use it with your G.T. kids." I thanked him with a hug as the homeroom bell rang, went to my classroom, shut the door, and cried. I should have cried because of the selfless love he showed me, I should have cried because he felt he had no other friend --I should have, but no...I cried in shame, realizing I had no idea what his name was. Let me repeat that ...I had no idea what his name was.
My teacher heart had seen a child in need and reacted to that need. Yet, I never thought to ask, "What is your name?" When we came back from Christmas break my bench buddy was gone. The family evidently had moved yet again. Of all the things that have happened to me in my teaching career, that one event --more than any other --forever changed the way I view each student. We do not teach children. We teach Eric and Katie and Burt and Karli --we teach Jody and Jason and Amy and Claire. It isn't enough to do the right thing for a student --we must value each, respecting who they are --someone with a name who is not like any other individual who has ever lived or ever will live.
I framed the paintbrush and keep it hanging near my desk. Throughout the years, at some point all the kids I serve notice it and ask, "Why do you have a paintbrush in a frame?" I tell them my story. I want them to think about the kids who need good friends and their power to be that needed friend, and I want them to know they are more than my students --they are individuals that I am honored to know and learn with.