The new school year was in full swing with the first month nearly history when the new kid arrived. The smiling spiky-haired eleven-year-old bounced from class to class easily making friends with all he encountered. He was quickly absorbed into the close-knit sixth grade class.
Happily, he bounced throughout the day…everyday. His reading teacher stopped him on the sidewalk one afternoon before he entered her class. “César,” she inquired, “Why are you always smiling?” He looked at her and grinned. “I’m just blessed,” he innocently responded, and then with an extra surge of energy, he joined his friends inside.
I make it a point to be a fairly visible administrator on campus everyday and to get to know all of the kids at my school. With over a thousand in attendance, I am lucky to know a first name or a last name (rarely both!) and a little something about each student. I involve myself in hundreds of conversations daily and really try to connect with all of "my kids." Sometimes I call them to my office just to check on them. Sometimes they pop in just to say hello or to ask for help with something that is bothering them. Most of the time all of these very important exchanges occur somewhere along the sidewalk leading to class.
César's bubbly personality and constant good cheer had won me over as he introduced himself his first day at school. I was intrigued by his simple comment to his teacher. Sixth grade boys rarely are that insightful, rarely willing to speak from the heart. I had the secretary call for him to come to my office.
Hesitantly, he entered wondering what he had done wrong. I assured him that he had nothing to worry about. He relaxed and took the seat I offered.
"You know, I used to be in a lot of trouble at my old school, Mr. Ramsey."
I couldn't imagine this happy-go-lucky boy ever causing a bit of trouble and told him so.
"No, it's true," he insisted. "I used to get into fights, and they would get mad at me. But I am trying really hard to change and don't want to be like that anymore."
"I think you are well on your way kid," I replied and sent him on his way back to class. He bounced out of the office with a huge grin upon his face.
During the next two years, he and I had several of these man to man conversations. Sometimes I would let him have one of the granola bars stashed in my desk (reserved for days when I didn't get lunch) or one of the many green apples I kept in my refrigerator. He shared little bits of his life with me - his love of basketball, his musical talent (guitar and drums), and his church activities. In one meeting he shared his love for his parents and his concern that the family photography business was slow. He told me that he was helping his dad, and I told him I bet his parents were proud of him. I wanted them to know how proud I was of him so I called the family home right then. Mother answered the phone, and César translated for me. I could then hear her proudly discussing my message with her husband.
One afternoon César and a few buddies were sent to my office for being a bit too rambunctious in class. I talked with each of them about expectations and responsibility and how they had let me and themselves down. I then sent them back to class.
Early the next morning, before the bell, I was at my desk preparing for the day, getting ready to go outside and greet students when César knocked on my door. "Can I talk to you?" he asked. He was not smiling. He was not bouncing. I invited him in, and he closed the door behind him. Oh no, I thought, it must be something serious.
"Mr. Ramsey," César started, "I just wanted to let you know that I am sorry for getting in trouble yesterday. I'm sorry I let you down. I told you I am trying to be better than I was at my old school, and I mean it. You won't see me in trouble again."
But such a promise is a difficult one for an adolescent boy to keep. Put him with other energy-charged middle-schoolers and all semblance of calmness is obliterated. And on an early spring day, César - now a seventh grader - was sent to me by the playground aide who said that he had refused to follow her directions.
I told César that I was extremely disappointed in his behavior. He burst into tears but accepted the consequence I placed upon him. He would lose lunch recess indefinitely and be sent to the special needs kindergarten playground to help supervise the children there. Maybe then, after a while, he would be able to empathize with the aide on his own playground and understand how difficult her job truly was.
I kept him at this duty for about three weeks. In that time, the ten mildly mentally retarded boys fell in love with him. He chased them around the yard and swung them on the tire swing. He chased Tuan, a shy, soft-spoken Vietnamese boy and roared like a lion. Tuan giggled and soon was roaring too. This confidence transferred into the classroom as well. Tuan soon began to talk more and to speak loud enough to be heard. His teacher was amazed at the change and called César back to her classroom to thank him for all he had done for Tuan.
Later that day, I spoke to César and praised him as well. He beamed and stammered, "I don't know what happened...I was just playing with him...we were lions...he ran...he roared...I just don't know how it happened!" I explained to him that that was the essence of teaching - sometimes you don't know how it happens, you don't know how you affect kids but, indeed, you do affect kids...all of them.
His smile was back. His bounce was back. And he was allowed back on his own playground. But he didn't always stay there. He had formed a connection with Tuan and with the others. He asked for permission to visit them a couple of days each week. Then he brought friends along to help. The little ones were in heaven with so many "big friends."
A few weeks later, I was out in the midst of my sidewalk conversations, and was greeted by César. He let me know how things were at home and how his classes were going. "I gotta get back to class now," he said and he shook my hand. He turned to leave and then stopped in his tracks. He turned around and said, "I love you, Mr. Ramsey," and bounced off to class. You never know how you affect kids...
The school year finally came to an end. On the last day, I made a point of not being in my office, of making sure I spoke to all kids about how proud I was of them, wishing them a safe and happy summer. The school day ended at noon, and I stood at the front of the school in the blazing Arizona sun. I shook hundreds of hands.
I saw César and his buddies walking slowly toward the main gate. I high-fived them, shook their hands and told them to be good for their parents. César said goodbye and broke away from the group. Suddenly, he began to sob. A friend and I walked over to him each of us giving him a hug. "You are a great kid," I said. "Be careful this summer. I'll see you next year, okay?"
He sniffed and wiped away the tears. He saw his mother in the parking lot and climbed in the family automobile. He waved, but his smile was subdued.
In late June, I received a visit from César, his older sister, his baby sister and his father. His father explained in broken English: "We are going back to Mexico...maybe when things get better here, we come back." Perhaps it was the economy. Perhaps it was the racial unrest brewing in Arizona at the time. I didn't ask.
Dad stayed in the lobby with little sister and kept her occupied while I sat in my office with César and his sister. They were both near tears. I told them how proud I was of them and how much I was going to miss them. I reminded César of his comment to his reading teacher about being blessed and told him that he, in turn, had blessed us.
In the middle of our goodbyes, a new kid and his mother came into the office. Being the only office employee there, I excused myself to provide enrollment papers and to answer questions. The boy's mother asked about the school's band program. I didn't have all the answers, but there was someone I knew who did...César.
I asked him to come out into the lobby and talk with the new kid. He tucked his sadness away - temporarily - and put a smile on his face. With the grace of a seasoned ambassador, he put a smile on two other faces...three, if you count mine. Mother and son left satisfied that they had found the right school.
After hugging departing brother and sister and shaking hands with their father, I reminded César: Sometimes you never know how you affect others. He grinned at me and ran his hand across his spiky hair.
"Just you wait, Mr. Ramsey. Someday, I'm going to be coming through those doors. You'll see me - I'll be coming right through those doors." He followed his family to the parking lot.
You'll see me - I'll be coming right through those doors.
Still I wait.
Copyright, Tim Ramsey.