Children teach tough lessons

  • 'Asta Bowen


School is a terrible place to have to spend your days. As any disgruntled student can tell you, the walls are sterile, the teachers suspicious, the curriculum irrelevant, the freedoms nonexistent.

And, out of all the places on earth I could be, I have chosen to spend my workdays here. I made this decision, perhaps naively, thinking I could be one of the people (in education there are more than a few) seeking to make the classroom a less terrible place to be.

Walls, I thought, don't have to be sterile; color is cheap and imagination is free. Teachers, I thought, don't have to be suspicious; if students are trusted, they will be trustworthy, and if they are respected, they will be respectful. Curriculum doesn't have to be irrelevant; there's a whole world to learn from. As for freedom, I thought, that's just a state of mind.

It's been almost 10 years now, and today I am looking at a bullet hole in the forehead. Having this afternoon seen one of our students packed into a police car in handcuffs; having watched a student bleeding from multiple stab wounds in the hallway of a different school; and having been assaulted once myself, I am grateful that this wound is only drawn in ink, and I am grateful that it is only on a poster. Somehow, it injures nonetheless.

The picture defaced today is one of dozens that hang in my room, spots of color I have brought, borrowed and cadged in my ongoing campaign to desterilize the walls. Many are images of wolves, all gifts from friends and colleagues who know of the years I spent researching and writing a book about a local wolf pack. This particular poster is a favorite, not only for its subject - a huge, black-framed image of a gray wolf's piercing gaze - but for its source: a quiet student who traveled to an agriculture convention in Kansas City, and brought the poster all the way back on the bus; it arrived in perfect condition, a fact I remember as clearly as I remember the pride and satisfaction on the young woman's face when she presented it to me.

This is not the first time someone has put an inky "bullet" into that wolf's forehead. Last time it was before summer vacation instead of Christmas break; last time I was able to erase the ink, though not the pen's impression. Each time, I felt the same pang in my chest.

Each time the lesson is the same: that cute Koosh toy won't cheer many kids before it's stolen. The bird feeder you put out will attract no finches with a glob of pre-chewed candy. It's fine to park your car in the staff lot, if you don't mind cleaning off spit, smashed banana, or a broken egg at the end of a day. Go ahead and bring your whole heart to the classroom, but be prepared for smirks and snickers.

Each time I think, 'Asta, get over it: this is trivial. This is nothing compared to the student who, blessedly, has returned whole and well from a suicide attempt. This is nothing compared to the student who, tragically, has not yet returned from a death in the family. This is nothing compared to the artful poem just turned in by a talented senior, the startling analysis done by an underachieving sophomore, or the research talent now emerging in an unsuspecting junior.

This is nothing. Just a poster on the wall. The kid with the pen must have been desperate for attention, desperate for a laugh, desperate to prove himself. Think of the inky bullet hole, 'Asta, as just another spot of color, a creative addition to the photograph: a different kind of gift from a different kind of student.

You have to toughen up, kid. Much ado over a little vandalism? It's not like there's blood on the floor or an ambulance on the way. It's not like the kid meant to hurt anybody. It's just that school never was the place for trust, for freedom, for color on the walls: it's the place for textbooks, grades, and getting by the best you can. And thanks to a handful of students - a few desperate, wounded creatures - I now know exactly how to keep it that way.

The hole in the poster may be superficial, but the hole in my heart is real. Neither, I'm afraid, can be fixed.

'Asta Bowen lives in rural Montana. She is also a contributor to Writers on the Range, the syndication service of High Country News.

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