The Day a Seventh Grader Gave Me the Bird

I’ll never forget the time a seventh grader gave me the bird. When I caught him and the gesture, it changed me as a middle school teacher. And somehow it reminded me of the middle school characteristic that states, “Educators value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them.” What I hadn’t expected is what this student taught me that day.

The morning started with the standard middle school ingredients. A dash of homeroom. A tablespoon of “What are we doing, Mr. Tomlin?” A cup of turning in work mixed with equal parts of reasons why it hadn’t been done yet. Mixed briskly with chatter about drama in the hallways, on the bus, and at the lockers. And in the middle of the middle level, there I was–a sixth and seventh grade ELA/Reading/SS teacher–trying to keep everything going and trying to take attendance at the same time.

I scanned the room before announcements and checked the faces against the names on my roster. I made a couple of marks for absences, but I was happy to see that most of my kiddos had arrived on time to school. But I was puzzled when I saw that Francisco was missing. He was always on time. His desk, where I would normally see him talking and clowning with other students, was empty.

Other kids didn’t know what was up, so I assured myself, “Francisco’s just running late. He’ll be here.” I left no absent or tardy mark in my grade book for homeroom. I knew he would show up.

Two classes later, and Francisco still hadn’t arrived. I checked with the other teachers on my seventh grade team, and they hadn’t heard anything either. Once third period began, we walked our kids to their exploratory classes, and then headed back to the seventh grade hallway to talk about content area plans, student/parent concerns, and the growing mystery of Francisco.

As we sat with our team planning logs and notebooks, we suddenly heard a faint shuffle of feet and the creak of a locker closing. We shot up from our chairs and hurried out to the hushed linoleum on our hallway. And there was Francisco, as usual, his baggy jeans sagging, his oversized shirt draped on him like a loose curtain, and his hair tussled like a nest. He was already walking to his third period exploratory class, so we decided to let him go. We decided we would check in at the front office to get the answer to the mystery. Some of us were ready to fill out tardiness paperwork. Some of us were ready to call home. But as we turned to go back to our meeting, we heard something.

A quiet, almost inaudible sound came from the lockers, right where Francisco had been. We walked over to his locker, listened closely, and heard it again. It was high-pitched and accompanied by a rustling. Rather than open his locker ourselves or get the school resource officer, we decided to get Francisco. So one of my teammates went to his art class and brought him back to his locker.

When he sauntered up to us, he didn’t look ashamed or guilty, but we could tell he was hiding something—a secret behind that thin, vented metal door. I asked, “Hey, Francisco, how’re you doing? Listen, we had a couple of questions for you. We wanted to know why you were late for school today? Also we heard something coming from your locker. What’s up in there?”

And that’s when it happened. Francisco opened up his locker slowly, pulled out his red backpack and showed me the bird. A real bird. He had zipped a baby bird in the front pocket of his backpack, and it was chirping quietly amidst his textbooks, crumpled papers and discarded pens.

I can hear his voice like it was yesterday: “Mr. Tomlin, see, I was standin’ at the bus stop, you know, waitin’ for the bus right? And there was like this baby bird, this one right? See, he like fell or something from this tree and hit this rock. And, man, he couldn’t fly or nothin’ so like the bus came and I didn’t get on. I couldn’t just leave him, Mr. Tomlin….”

The mystery was solved, and more importantly, the meaning was made clear. The answer to the mystery: Francisco had seen a baby bird that needed help, put it in his backpack, and walked four miles to school. He cared about something more than himself. The meaning to me: middle school kids have hearts and feelings and minds that are bigger than all of us. Francisco taught me what it means to value young adolescents for everything they are worth–and that I should be prepared to teach them and to learn from them right back.

Essential Questions:

How well do your know your students, including their challenges, triumphs, and routines?
How does your team work together to serve students, especially those at-risk?
How do you talk and listen to a student in trouble or in distress?
How can you use discipline as an opportunity for teaching and learning?
How do you measure a student’s worth?
What lessons can you learn from your students?