| Musings |

The Compliment Game

I stand taller yet, flash a smile to 20 upturned faces. Sweet little ten-year-olds. I’ll miss you, girlies

It’s the last day of the school year, my first one as a teacher — and I’m on top of the world. Giddy with pride, and yes, some relief, too. Have I really done it? Finished my first teaching year, come out alive — and alive and kicking at that?

I breeze into the classroom and note with pleasure that the girls scuttle to their seats. For the tiniest moment, I see a vision from some months ago superimposed over the scene — me, standing at the door, watching, waiting, lip-biting while the girls take their sweet time returning to their desks, giggling over some joke or huddling over a Very Exciting Object.

Wow, was that really this year?

Or rather: Is this very beautiful scene today, of impeccable classroom decorum, in the same year as the other?

Yes. Yes.

I stand taller yet, flash a smile to 20 upturned faces. Sweet little ten-year-olds. I’ll miss you, girlies.

Last Day is in the air, the floor a mess, something I wouldn’t usually allow. Allow — that’s a good one. As if for the first bunch of months they cared what I allowed or what I didn’t.

But that time is behind me, behind us all, and today I’m the victor.

I feel like skipping down a hundred hills with the sun on my back. Heady, I grin at them. “Girls, how about we play the compliment game?”

Sparkling eyes and straightened backs give me my answer. We pass around pink slips of paper like glorious bits of cotton candy, and they hunch low to etch their names in careful script on the very top. I survey my little kingdom with all the pride of a queen. A burst of benevolence makes me say, “You know what, I think I’ll play, too,” and the air is electrified with their excitement, their crows of “Yesssssss!” crackling.

“Okay, ready, set, go!”

They pass the papers along, and each girl pauses, ponders the name on top, and then scribbles a compliment. Their tongues are clenched between their teeth, wisps of soft hair blonde or brown or even black framing their little faces. I smile, then turn to my own task. I said I’d join, didn’t I?

Henny Grun.

My eyelids flutter closed and I fritter off down memory lane. Henny. That kid I loved from the first day, who kept raising her hand and dutifully answering prompts despite the surrounding drama. I know what I want to write: You saved me, Henny, keep noticing others in need, but I shake my head and pen, So well-behaved, an example to others, I’ll miss teaching you, instead.

One, two, three. Pass.

Dassy Lieber.

I still smell a stench of fear, stale as it may be by now. I dart a glance at her skinny frame, pointed chin jutted out in concentration. How can a 20-year-old be scared of a ten-year-old? I then revel in the results of our power struggle. No, class clowns don’t cow me anymore. Thank you for making me face myself, Dassy, for pushing me to the point of quitting, so I could discover the strength inside of me.

With a shrug, that becomes, keep spreading positivity wherever you go!

One, two, three. Pass the papers along.

Tova Esther. Dina. Leah. Malky. Some names make me smile, others less so. Ruchie. Bella. Shaindy. I dispense compliments freely today, black ink elegantly expressing the hundreds of things I wish I could say. Black is classy that way.

I want to thank the girls who unwittingly held my hands in the grueling first weeks just by having their notebooks open and making eye contact. I want to thank the girls who drove me to tears, because then I shook myself hard and came back the next day.

I want to thank them for their carefully lettered thank-you notes, because they made me realize that I’m a teacher, that I’m touching lives. I want to thank the ugly caricatures on the whiteboard, because they forced me to look myself in the face and say, You’re the adult in the room, you can’t fall apart now.

I want to thank the dutiful nods, telling me I’m actually penetrating a few little brains. I want to thank the snickers, because I finally figured out that no, it’s not always about my skirt being on the wrong way or a run in my tights; sometimes kids are kids and you need to get that.

One, two, three. Pass the papers.

The game is coming to a close. I see the paper with my own name getting closer.

One, two, three. Pass the papers.

We’ve come full circle, in more ways than one. The girls grab the paper with their own name on top and with uninhibited delight, I turn to read my own. Who doesn’t like a compliment? But I’m curious, too, to see if anyone picked up, even a fraction, of what a roller coaster of a year it was for me.

Thank you for being the best teacher. I wish you could teach us forever. I’m going to miss you next year. I’ll never forget a teacher like you. You always brought such fun things to school.

I smile up at them, and wish I had their unfettered expressiveness. To tell them everything I feel inside, to thank them, at least. I know they mean every word they’ve written. Unlike me, they’re not bound by social norms and professional boundaries and suddenly, I wish I wasn’t.

Our goodbye is quick, unceremonious. Prizes, farewell speech, you were the best class ever, pictures, certificates and then, there it is, the bell, and desk lids clang shut and they file out of the classroom for the last time. I wave, smile wide, the millions of unsaid words swirling, swirling around me.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 898)

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