Last year, Jacopo took great pleasure in running into homeroom during silent breakfast and cackling. He was a boulder thrown into the still pond of any classroom - not just ripples, but waves of disruption. He liked to joke around and throw pieces of eraser. I don’t know if he ever finished his work in my class. He told me I was unfair and mean regularly. “Usted es fea” he said in April. "You’re ugly" - a cherry on top.
Every three months or so, we had a moment. “Can we do a project on the solar system, miss?” he asked me in October. He settled happily for making paper cranes when I could fit it into our district lesson plans. In January, he helped me build a complicated cardboard storage shelf. Somehow, on the last day of school, he gave me a hug, and this year he asked to join the fitness club I started.
When I think of the growth that a child undergoes between 4th and 5th grade, I think of Jacopo. My view might be different because I don’t have him in class every day - but I don’t see him cackling in the halls. Instead, he has started channeling his enormous energy. He cheers for our slowest runners. He ran an extra lap around the school on Thursday. Yesterday, at our race, he told me, “I can win!” He didn’t win, but I saw him from across the park, pushing himself to sprint across the finish line. He might still yell when he’s standing next to you but he’ll look sheepish if you remind him to turn it down. His energy, once frenetic, has become happy.
His family is from Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. His dad runs a construction crew here. When I asked the kids yesterday where they would want to live if they could choose anywhere, he said Mexico. “There are a lot of kids over there who don’t have a lot of things,” he said. “I want to help make their lives better. I want to build a school.”
Julian gave me some mean, mean looks last year. Talking with him when he acted out in class was like ramming into a hot metal wall over and over and over again. He shut me down every time with an imperious “No.” I didn’t know how to avoid power struggles, and this was a kid who would take power wherever he could find it. He’s chubby, doesn’t play soccer, never had new sneakers; when his mom invited me for his sister’s birthday, he showed me where they played, unearthing garbage from a dirt mound.
His enthusiasm makes things happen. He was one of the first to sign up for the fitness club and brought 3 friends with him. He runs with a small smile around his lips, pushing round cheeks rounder.
At the race this weekend, he started off sprinting, lost his breath, walked. Sprinted, lost his breath, walked. I walked with him most of the way, reminding him to breathe, encouraging him to jog slowly so he he could jog for longer. But it didn’t seem to bother him that most of his friends had already finished as we were starting the second loop. “I overheard this mom telling her son, it’s not hard, it’s a challenge,” he said. “So that’s what I’m telling myself.” I have a photo of him at the finish line, glowing brighter than the orange balloons in morning sunlight. When we got on the bus, he immediately told everyone what he had heard. “I thought you guys should know,” he said. “It’s not hard, it’s a challenge!”
I can’t wait for his next race. The small smile around his lips when he runs will just get bigger and bigger.
*Names have been changed.