About four years ago, I had to take over a Math 2 class with about two months left in the year because a teacher left unexpectedly. I was the resident EC Inclusion teacher who got all the math classes at the time, so it made sense that I take over. Other than simply being a funny sidebar, it’s not really all that important why the teacher left, but the very loud rumblings said that he was caught having sexy time on his desk with a fellow teacher. I cleaned that desk VERY well.
Anyway, there was a student in that class who was rumored to have bed bugs. I spent the next month or so trying to confirm this rumor. I had at least two students come up to me saying they saw one crawling on his sweatshirt and one included the also disturbing fact that at least half a dozen roaches crawled out of his backpack. And then they just turned right around and went back in!!
Well, one day I finally saw the evidence. A bed bug. I had already done my due diligence and met with administration about what I could do about it if the time came for me to confront him. Short answer? Not much. The school has very little jurisdiction with regards to the governance of the living situation of our students. Yes, we can get social services involved if we think the student is in an unhealthy, dangerous, abusive, or neglectful situation, but we can’t go in there and say, “Clean this shit up NOW!!”
As for what happens at school, we can offer him clean clothes and even offer to wash the ones he’s wearing, but there is also the very real tightrope you have to walk between what is legal and what could potentially be an embarrassment of such grandiose proportion that it could literally lead a kid to kill himself. That sounds hyperbolic, but if you’ve been paying attention to depression and suicide rates, you know it’s not.
So one day not long after I saw a bed bug, I went and found the young man during my planning period and said, “Let’s go for a walk.” I didn’t speak until we got outside, and when I did, I just flat out asked.
“I saw a bed bug on you yesterday. Tell me about home.”
He did. If I have no other redeeming qualities, the one I do have is that I can build a strong and meaningful rapport with my students that does not understand or care what color they are or who their parents are or if they’ve showered in a week or if they live in a house infested with bed bugs. This kid immediately slumped his shoulders and dropped his head and had a great deal of trouble looking past his shoes, but he told me all about it.
He told me how every soft surface in their single wide trailer – carpet, couch, beds, clothes, everything – was so thoroughly eaten up with bed bugs that they didn’t even try to control them anymore. He told me how every night when they went to bed, they put a giant sheet of plastic down on the mattress. No sense in using sheets or blankets unless you wanted to wake up to hundreds of bites.
He told me how they dried their clothes on high every morning before they put them on so that the heat would hopefully kill the bugs on them. Couldn’t guarantee that a few wouldn’t jump on for the ride between putting their clothes on and leaving the house, though. All three brothers basically had two wearable shirts each, so they just left one on the dryer every night so that maybe the bed bugs inside would crawl away looking for food. His older brother had even taken to wearing plastic grocery bags on his shoes so they didn’t get bugs in them.
I just finished up year six of my teaching career, and I’m 41 years old, but I was still pretty fresh when that happened. It was my first “OMG, how do I help this kid” dilemma. As I look back on it four years later, I actually don’t regret how I handled it. Not one bit.
I went and talked to a teacher whose husband did missionary work in one of the islands and brought back bed bugs. I had heard her tell the story a year or so earlier. They had no idea he had brought them home until about a week had passed, but it was too late to control them at that point. When they got it professionally cleaned and fumigated, it cost about $2,000. This was after a few DAYS. The student of mine and his mom and two brothers had completely given up. It would’ve either cost ten grand or the ingredients to a Molotov Cocktail to clean it up and I doubted they had insurance or other housing options, so I didn’t mention that one.
I called a local cleaning company who said they couldn’t tackle something that severe. I asked several people at school, including our school social worker. She agreed that social services should pay them a visit, but her only suggestion for the bed bugs was to either move or get the landlord involved. The student had already told me they tried that avenue. They couldn’t afford to take the landlord to court when she refused to help. She said it was their issue. And I’m still not really sure I disagree.
Well, a couple of days later I was talking to my parents and told them the story. In normal storytelling conversation, I asked if they had ever heard about anybody who could clean something like that pretty cheaply. They hadn’t, but my mom said what I always expect her to say. She has a heart the size of Jupiter, and she offered to pay for it.
Therein lay my dilemma. Where did teacher stop and something else start? I can’t even define what that “something else” is because if you’re offering to pay a few thousand dollars to help rid a student’s house of bed bugs when you’ve never so much as met the mother, it’s somewhere in the best friend / relative / savior zone. So I told my mom no. That’s not my job or hers.
I’ve thought back to that story a few times over the years. I’ve never once given a student money, and I don’t plan on ever doing it in the future. I’ve given them food a few times when I had some cheap snacks and they claimed to be hungry, but I don’t even keep snacks at work anymore. I don’t think that’s my job.
Some may argue with me on this, and that’s fine, but hear me out. I work in a high school with over 80% poverty. Almost ALL of them have needs up to and including bed bug removal. Almost ALL of them don’t get the diet they need, and some of them only eat at school.
Some kids live with ten people in a two bedroom shack with no electricity and shoddy plumbing. Some live with relatives and they just sleep on a pallet in the corner of the den. I had one kid that claimed to live in his dad’s car. Because his dad didn’t want him in the house!! Another told me she locked herself in her room every day when she got home from school and did not come out even to use the bathroom until the next morning because she was afraid her mother’s boyfriend would abuse her.
In other words, if I had the kind of heart that wanted to bail everybody out, I would be the one needing to be bailed out. How is that fair to MY family?
You know what else? I have had no fewer than a hundred kids come to me over the years asking me to buy something to support the band or a field trip or FFA or any number of other fundraising opportunities. Have I supported them? Yes. ONE time.
Every time a student comes to me and asks if I’d like to buy a raffle ticket for this or a box of oranges for that, I ask them one simple question. “If you can tell me exactly how much you would earn off of my contribution to this fundraiser, I’ll give you that amount. Because I don’t want the oranges.” Exactly ONE kid has come back to me in six YEARS and showed me the profit they would be collecting off of their fundraising efforts. I remember I gave him $3. There hasn’t been a single person other than him that has cared enough or taken the initiative to ask a simple question of their teacher or club advisor.
But think about that for a moment. It shows you something about handouts. It shows you that students do not want to work for the money. They literally just want a handout. My money is important to them, but it’s only important because they have to put in extra effort should I say no. It also means that even if I had given it to them, I would be immediately forgotten.
I can just hear the kids leaving my room saying, “Hell yeah, I got his money. Next!!” Makes you feel kinda used, doesn’t it?
This, of course, did not apply to the kid with bed bugs. He wasn’t asking for a handout. I simply had the opportunity to offer it because my mom has the heart of a dozen philanthropists. I chose not to, and I do not regret that even the slightest bit. Think about it this way. If you had bed bugs, would you ask for help or would you do everything in your power to rid your house of bed bugs, even if it meant sleeping in a tent for a month while the bed bugs inside were dying?
Because you see, bed bugs can only live on human blood. If they have no meal, won’t they die? If you’re too lazy to move out of your house for a couple of weeks, even if it means sleeping in your car, then I truly have very little sympathy for you. If you are then too lazy to get in there and REALLY clean all those dead ass little carcasses out of your house, I have even less sympathy for you.
And before you ask, I met the guy’s mom when she came and picked him up a week or so later after I saw at least a dozen bed bugs on him and asked him in private if he would like to call home. She was as able-bodied as I am. If she had a disability that would keep her from sleeping somewhere other than her house for a little while and then helping her sons clean it up, it did not appear to be a physical disability.
My point in all of this is that I believe it is important for teachers to understand the most important job that we perform. What am I actually teaching students if I give them money? What am I teaching kids about the value of money, about effort, about resourcefulness, about grit, about hard work, about the cruelty of life, about taking your current situation and making it better, or about accepting defeat and growing from it? On the flip side, what am I learning about students who are too lazy to go ask their teacher or advisor what kind of profit they will receive off of fundraising?
My job as a math teacher is not just to teach math. In all honesty, I believe that to be about the fourth or fifth most important job I perform at school every day. The first, and far and away the most important, will always be one very simple phrase but one very difficult challenge.
The most important job I perform every day is to make kids believe in themselves.
Go back to my little bed bug friend for a moment. It was really the first time I ever thought about my main job as a teacher. I remember struggling mightily at the time with what I could do for him other than reporting the incident to social services and helping him pass his math class. I was at a complete loss, but there was one thing I consider as a true gift in my own personality, and even though I come off as awkward at times because I struggle to do this with adults, I have no trouble whatsoever doing it with teenagers. And this personality trait helps students relate to ME even as I struggle to truly empathize with the vast majority of students in my school.
I just started talking to him like a person. And I did it with no filter. I asked everything from silly questions to really tough questions and cared about the answers to all of them. I wasn’t a math teacher or an adult or an authority he had to respect. In the week or so after our initial talk, I was just a person asking about his hobbies, his dreams, what his favorite video game was, if he had plans for after high school. I also threw in some tough ones like what happened to his dad and why would a mother let her children live in a house infested with bed bugs.
And when we got on that topic, we talked a little about bed bugs. I didn’t offer a dime, but I told him all I had learned about them and how his family might get a handle on their problems. And yes, I told him he had to take ownership of his problem and fix it. And I gave him a few suggestions as to how to do that. In a week, I had done more research than he or his family ever had. That kind of laziness didn’t deserve a handout, but it didn’t deserve a malicious rebuke either. It deserved his teacher doing everything possible to build him up and empower him.
So mostly I just talked to him like a very important human being. And somewhere in doing so, I hope he left our conversations believing in himself a little bit more than he ever had. It’s NOT a hard part of the job, but it is THE most important. Well, it’s the most important if you encourage their dreams and try to truly understand their problems. If you DIScourage their dreams and belittle their problems, you kinda suck.
I never did find out what happened with the bed bugs. We had a good week or two of rapport, and during exams I even saw him wearing a new shirt, but I didn’t see him much those last couple of weeks of school. And I never saw him again after that semester. But I think I empowered him, even if it was just a little bit. I gave him something positive he didn’t have, and in that case, that “thing” was hope. That “thing” was also believing in himself a little more than he did the day before when he walked the halls of his high school mortally embarrassed and terrified that a bed bug might crawl out of his sleeve.
When I’m talking to students in less sobering moments and doing everything in my power to make them believe in their abilities, I always try to give them something to think about that they never have. For instance, I do a budget project with my class once a year and make them pretend to be 30 years old. (And no, this project is not a part of the Math 1 curriculum, and no, I don’t care. It’s a “get ready for life” project.)
In this project, they have to create what they think their life will be like at 30. They pick a job, research the job, decide if they want to be married and have kids, and then they have to figure out a believable budget based on that life. For most of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever considered what life costs. And they’re absolutely clueless. So I might have a conversation with a kid about his vehicle of choice and I’ll say, “You do know how much giant tires and a four inch lift kit costs, right? And that it’s really hard to get a carseat up in there, right? And you do know that a very, very small percentage of the country makes $250,000 a month as a Youtuber, right?”
I think giving them the reality of their dreams is important, but I also think it’s important to show them that their stupid, unrealistic, unachievable goals are still ridiculously awesome to have. So I ALWAYS show them how they can make their reality match their dreams. They have no idea at that point in their lives that those outlandish dreams and ideas about their future will never come true, but that doesn’t matter in that moment.
We teachers get to build a foundation of self-esteem that students might not recognize for YEARS (and they might not EVER get at home.) We also might be responsible for uncovering a foundation that had never existed within them. And that’s pretty cool. It can also be pretty burdensome to fathom our importance in the molding of something that can quite literally be the difference between a lifetime of contentment and a lifetime of insecurity and depression.
I don’t remember a single thing I actually learned in middle school or high school, but I remember how people in authority positions made me feel about myself. And even though I’ve had some pretty severe personal issues in my life, I’m still a dreamer, and I didn’t just get that at home. I got it from my teachers, too. It’s all the proof you need that a teacher’s most important job is to make their students believe in themselves. There will never be a more important job.
And if you haven’t noticed, there are a whole lot of teachers leaving the profession who are REALLY good at this. Many more are on their way out as soon as something better comes along. That’s kinda sad. I hope the people in charge of the future of public education find a way to program the computers to perform our most important job for the kid with severe learning disabilities who has spent the past three years bouncing around between foster care and two parents who don’t want him, all the while slowing refusing to fight the early stages of self-mutilating anger.
Because yeah, I had one of those kids, too. He graduated in 2018. Hugged my neck on graduation night and thanked me for always believing in him.