Anyone who’s been a student in grade school can attest to the fact that there are many different categories of students in a classroom. The most common categories are the high achievers who seem to never get in trouble; the students whose names seem to get exhausted by being chastised by the teacher so much; and those who are neither here nor there, and don’t bring much attention to themselves.
Anyone who’s been a teacher can tell you that the students who require the most attention cannot really be placed into one category because their struggle presents itself in many different ways. There are those who have a hard time academically; those who struggle to focus and are a disturbance to the class; those who carry defiance on their sleeve, and so on. In my eight months of being a teacher, I found that there were effective ways to work with all these types of students. However, the student who perplexed me the most was one who, unlike all the others, did not want to be helped and outwardly rejected my efforts to do so. We’ll call this student Leo.
Upon first becoming Leo’s teacher, I simply saw a cute, lanky kid with a head full of curls and a wide mischievous smile. Soon, however, I realized that he couldn’t care less about school work and instead, found pleasure in causing a commotion both inside and outside the classroom. Seeing this, I started the year with resolve to reach him and to leave having fostered some kind of change in his mindset. But as I got to know him, I saw that his behavior was deeply rooted in other issues, and my own frustration and discouragement settled into my bones. He showed himself to be full of anger and indignation, pegging himself as one of the “bad kids” and coping by making jokes about his and others’ failures and mishaps. Though there was so much more to who Leo was, he stuck these labels and lies onto himself, and so that’s what he saw. He was athletic and artistic. He was a leader in the eyes of his peers, full of life and curiosity, and a contagiously loud laughter. Nonetheless, as people often do, he chose to cling to the wrong truths.
During second semester, there was a time when I felt that Leo and I were in a more positive place. That week, he had frustratedly told me that he could not do his math assignment until he understood division better. I was excited that Leo had somewhat asked for my help, so that weekend, I made him his own flash cards with all the division tables on them and happily presented them to him on Monday after school. I felt defeated as he looked at the cards with disgust and embarrassment, immediately declaring that he wouldn’t take them home to study, no matter how much I tried to persuade him. As Leo turned to go home, I slyly slipped the cards into the sleeve of his backpack, telling him to just give them five minutes of study time. Once he left, I had a vague feeling that he still found a way to assert his defiance, so I walked down the hall after him and found that my instinct was right. The cards had not left campus, for they were tucked neatly into the windowsill of the next classroom down. I was most definitely very vexed for the remainder of the evening, but slightly put at ease when Leo sent me a Facebook message apologizing for not taking the flashcards. Nevertheless, the next day, I found that we continued to be at a standstill, as the exact same events replayed as the day before. After school, I gave Leo the flashcards, he refused them, I slipped the cards into his backpack, and watched him slip them into the windowsill, shooting a smirk back at me as he walked towards his bus. Leo never did end up taking the cards home.
At the time, I wanted this situation to be like one of the redemption stories I had heard about student missionary teachers who had helped to tear down the walls of an unreachable student. I wanted to have a sudden turnaround with Leo that would change everything. But that’s not what God had planned for us. God knew that Leo didn’t need what I thought he needed and that I needed to learn more about God’s method of reaching people. I tried to find ways to change Leo, but what he needed more than anything was for me to try to understand and love him as he was. It’s easy to think that helping people means fixing them, but what everyone needs most is to be shown that they are loved.
A few weeks before I left Yap, there was an afternoon where I gave my students free time for the last part of the school day. Everyone eagerly ran outside, except for one boy who stayed leaning over the work at his desk. Leo. He chose to stay inside to finish doing an assignment that had been baffling his mind all afternoon. I decided to sit down and try to help Leo, pleased that he was opting out of free time to be responsible. While we worked, I asked Leo about his home life and we fell into casual conversation, which I think was surprising for both of us. I realized that it was rare that him and I talked about things other than his math assignments or why he should be more kind to his peers. As we talked, I felt my heart opening more towards him and his attitude towards me shifting a bit as well. After finishing the assignment, we went outside for the remainder of the day. When the bell rang, all the kids started to run towards their busses, but as Leo ran, he paused and turned around to yell “Bye Teacherrrr!” This was nothing remarkable in itself, but this acknowledgement was the closest thing to a hug that Leo had given me all year. From Leo, it was significant.
What I learned with Leo and with many of my other students, is that we can love others best when we choose to sit with them and be with them as they are, pointing out the good we see and not asking them to be anything different. I won’t be able to see what God is doing in the lives of all my students, but I know that my time in Yap wasn’t in vain. I got to be a part of the sowing and I know that God can be trusted to lead them in the growing.
Rebecca (Becky) Orozco, a Student Missionary from Walla Walla University, recently returned from serving as a 5th grade teacher at Yap Seventh-day Adventist School in Yap, Micronesia. Sadly, school came to a sudden close in March due to the threat of COVID-19, sending Becky and most of her fellow volunteer teachers home a few months early. Becky is taking some time to walk through her experience in Yap as she transitions home, and is kind enough to share it with all of us through this blog post series.