It was the day after my birthday.
Finally. It was over. A year of stretching, anxiety, anger, pain, injustice . . . thank God it was over. I walked outside for what I thought was the last time. It was too warm to wear my white jean jacket, but I’d needed to keep it on all day since my shoulders showed in my teal lace dress. And the school wouldn’t have that. I got into my car. Before I could even think, I broke into tears.
What happened to me?
Let’s go back a little. It’s now August. So, still hot. I had just started a brand new job, and I was both excited and nervous about this entirely new experience. I had just started a position as an “instructional aide”--or what most of us normal people refer to as a “teacher’s aide.” Honestly, it was about time, as I had long enjoyed working with kids and had already received praise and responsibility for it in a professional setting. For the previous three years, I had been working at a living history museum, which involved dozens of school groups, winter outreach programs, and summer camps. My boss could see how much I connected with children and had often put me in situations where I would work directly with them. This included head camp counselor 2 years in a row. So potential teacher? It was the natural next step in my career. But become an aide first–just to be sure.
The last three years I had spent at home. Now, I roomed with people with whom I’d only just met. My closest friends lived 45 minutes away. And I had certainly never lived in a big city before. But I did have dreams. I had dreams and determination, even with my fear. That summer of 2015 was the perfect start for a rom-com, with my wide-eyed, innocent self as the lead. And if that wasn’t enough, I prided myself on my experience and knack for getting along with kids. What could go wrong?
As it turned out, everything.
First of all, I found it was difficult to bond with my new coworkers. My last job at the museum had felt like one big dysfunctional family. We sometimes got annoyed, but most of us loved each other. They were my friends and my only real social group. But with this job, no one was going out to Chili’s to get drinks and appetizers. And whereas in my last job I was friends with my boss, here even the teachers interacted separately from the aides–as if we were some lower class. I felt invisible. The principal ran a tight ship for both employees and students. Silence was to be maintained at all times in the hallways; greater issues were ignored all for the goal of maintaining straight lines and absolute quiet. The children were expected to perform as little robots, pumped with a rushed lunch into their bodies and an information stuffed brain. Several of the teachers rubbed elbows with the admin, but most of us were considered cogs in the wheels of the machine, always walking on eggshells, unsure of who to trust. If you didn’t ask questions, you made mistakes. If you made mistakes, you got in trouble. If you asked questions, you were stupid for not knowing the answer.
On top of all that, I was working at the after-school care program to make enough money. My day went from 7:30 am to 6:00 pm, with almost every inch of the day involving the discipline of twenty-three seven-year-olds. Then, to a girl who had been used to driving curvy back roads out in the country, I faced the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way home. By the time I got there, I was exhausted. I shut myself in my room and binge-watched TV until the next day when I did it all over again.
Needless to say, I had no friends. Anyone I made friends with I couldn’t keep because I worked too much. I was too tired to do anything, so I didn’t. I was completely alone. My new best friend was Netflix.
Then I met him.
A dreamy, handsome P.E. coach? Nah. Just a kid. And he wasn’t my friend.
That one kid. He couldn’t sit still for the life of him. As the teacher’s aide, it was my job to keep the kids quiet when the teacher was teaching, and I just couldn’t do it. Then again, it wasn’t just me. No one could. He got off his chair, yelled in the middle of class, made jokes to distract the other kids . . . but nothing helped. We tried reward; we tried punishment. He wouldn’t listen. The teacher sent us on walks down the hallway to try to get the energy out of him. She sent us to the chapel “to get some Jesus.” I too, was baffled. My own arrogant self knew that I was “good with kids” and was convinced this child had poor discipline at home. One day in the chapel, I asked him why he didn’t just behave. “I’m trying!” he said. Well then, okay. I didn’t believe him. I was angry. I didn’t understand why all the other aides got to actually do their jobs of grading homework in the classroom and I had to go on walks with just one kid who wouldn’t listen. I was no therapist. Why me?
This went on for months. I felt so sorry for myself. In part, it was justified, as I would learn this school took structure and silence to an extreme that even had the adults pulling their hair out. Christmas break came and went, and by the time it was January, I was over it.
But in those monotonous and torturous first few months, something was brewing under the surface of my heart. So much so, that eventually, a change occurred. Well, two changes. First, the child got an ADHD diagnosis–and for the first time, my eyes were opened and all I wanted to say was, “Ooohhhhhh.” An obvious and common occurrence for most teachers, but not for me, who thought she was so “good with kids.” Secondly, I suddenly realized one day that this kid and I were in it together. Nobody got us. Here we were, two free spirits, longing to laugh, have fun, and just be ourselves. Especially in an overly structured world that wanted to control both teachers and students. All this time, we had been kindred spirits. I was just so busy trying to fix him that I hadn’t even noticed. He was me.
Here we were, two free spirits, longing to laugh, have fun, and just be ourselves. All this time, we had been kindred spirits. I was just so busy trying to fix him that I hadn’t even noticed. He was me.
My perspective changed what felt like overnight. One second I was annoyed at bringing the kid down the hallway; the next thing I knew he meant everything to me. I still hated the job, but I looked forward to the moments I got to spend with him–even when he was being difficult. Of course, I felt proud when he had a good day, but I eventually came to prefer the bad ones. Those days, I got to spend more time helping and understanding him. Every day, I got hugs good-bye and fun-filled conversations during recess. And in a time when I had few close friends, he became the best one.
This February, Friendship Explored is focusing on Friendships that help us love better. I immediately thought of My Buddy–as I had fondly come to call him–and the February where I learned friendship as I had never seen it before. The bad days still came, but they turned out to be the best days . . . because they involved sacrificial love towards someone for whom it was easy to sacrifice.
The bad days still came turned out to be the best days because they involved sacrificial love towards someone for whom it was easy to sacrifice.
On the last day of school, the bell rang, and the year ended. My buddy jumped into my arms. He took his backpack and turned to me: “Bye Miss Landry. I love you.” I feared it would be the last thing I ever heard him say. I got a picture with him before I left. He leaned into me so far you couldn’t even see his whole face. I got into my car. And I lost it.
A good friend never tries to forcibly change a friend into something they’re not. I had tried to do just that.
I wouldn’t be a teacher. And I certainly wouldn’t spend another year under the direction of that administration. But I wasn’t crying from all that frustration and pain. I cried for the friends I had made in those kids, and most especially for my little Buddy. I, who thought I knew so much . . . A good friend never tries to forcibly change a friend into something they’re not. I had tried to do just that. Thankfully, my Buddy hadn’t let me. In his own way, he reminded me that he wasn’t the problem. And neither was I. When I learned to love him just as he was, the days weren’t so bad anymore. For either of us. The whole time, the answer was friendship.
The whole time, the answer was friendship.