She Smelled of Feet

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She smelled of feet. A perfectly normal five year old otherwise. She just smelled like feet. I would go on to realize that many kids had a distinct odor. Sometimes nice like fruity shampoo or laundry detergent. Sometimes not like ashtrays or feet.

It was her shoes. Or rather, her sockless feet inside of her shoes that produced the smell. They were a flat, brown situation with a single velcro strap. In my naiveté, I wondered why her parents just didn’t buy her more shoes. Like I said, a sweet girl otherwise.

There was a natural curiosity about her that only a kindergartener possesses. Constant questions were all part of a normal day. A child’s eyes see things that adult eyes cannot. Children haven’t yet been spoiled by the can’ts and doesn’ts.

There was an underlying sadness behind her tentative smiles. It was like the sun struggling to come around from behind an ominous cloud. I wouldn’t put my finger on it until much later in the year.

She came to my class several weeks after school started. I was young enough in my teaching career to be frustrated by her arrival. The class and I had already gotten our routines and procedures down. Things were clicking. The thought of having to train a new student was annoying.

“Did she miss anything?” her mom asked. No, lady. We’ve been staring at clouds for the last month. I haven’t been teaching anything to anyone yet. She didn’t miss a thing.

“We’ll get her caught up and where she needs to be,” I assured the mom. It turned out that this girl was going to get me caught up to where I needed to be as a teacher.

In February of that school year, the mom told me that she was going to be pulling her daughter out of school for a week. Oh, great. Just what she needs. She’s already behind. Let’s get her even further behind the rest of the class. Doesn’t this mom know I have lessons to teach and material to cover? Some nerve…

My Turn

A week later the girl returned. The mom walked her down to class that morning. The mom told me that they had to return to their home town for some court proceedings. The mom told me that the girl, my late-to-enroll student, her daughter, had been abused by her ex-husband.

Oh. Every ounce of arrogance I had been accumulating vaporized in seconds. How could I have been such a pompous ass?

That encounter has shaped my teaching ever since. I am so thankful it happened early in my teaching. I think about it often when I meet students and parents as they come to my classroom. We never quite know their full story.

Students and families have to be our priority. I teach students, not subjects. It has to be about the students, because there is always a story behind the story. I just have to remember I have the opportunity to help write a better ending.

photo credit: Robert S. Donovan via photopin cc