Family is a word that I have pondered the last few months. I asked friends and others about family and was struck by the discussions that evolved. No matter where the conversations began, a childhood story or memory would surface. Our families undoubtedly impact us from the beginning, especially when they let us down.
It was early in my teaching career that I felt a tremendous bond with my students, a protection like that of a mother. My students were my babies and I worked around the clock to give them everything I could, often dipping into my own family’s funds to provide the best in field trips and classroom supplies for my young students. My love poured out into everything I did, but eventually it wasn’t enough.
Soon, I received reports from recess and lunchtime yard supervisors that some of my students fought every day. Day in and day out, it proved to be the same group. I spoke to each of the boys involved and began implementing consequences that resulted in daily time outs. It didn’t help. By the start of the next week, the fighting infiltrated the girls’ groups and most of the class was arguing with one another. It was taking up much of our academic time as I noticed glares dart across the classroom at peers. I’d had enough.
One afternoon, the students cleared their desks, and we had a major class discussion. I began by sharing how heartbroken I was by the fighting they had been doing. A student informed me that they had been carrying it over from the previous school year, as if they expected me to accept that as a sane reason and allow them to carry on. In wholeheartedly sharing that I saw them as my own children, I noticed how still and attentive they got. Big eyes widened and their little ears perked up.
Our school promoted being Earth protectors. Many of my young students would wander the vast campus and pick up trash, touting their good deeds for our planet. On that particular afternoon, I asked why they desired to keep our campus so clean. I jotted their reasons on the whiteboard for keeping the land beautiful, enjoyable, healthy, and safe for all. Finally, someone shared showing respect and being grateful for what we have.
That year in Social Studies, the students learned about their communities, the world, and their place in each. So, I drew a circle on a piece of paper which I projected on the screen for all to view. I continued to draw more circles and explained as I labeled each outer area. Our class was like a family. Then, we were part of a greater group which was the school community, then our city, state, country, and our planet. Smiles began to appear across their faces when they saw all that they were a part of just by being born into this world.
At that moment, I drew a heart at the center of all the circles and labeled it “You” as I shared that the goodness and peace of each group did not work without the love of each of them. Then I posed the question once again, “Why are you all fighting so much?” By this time, I knew who the main instigators were.
We sat on the floor in a wide circle as students shared their innermost fears, thoughts, and worries. They were frustrated with how older siblings and cousins had been treating them at home and chose to take that hurt out on their peers. We heard stories of parents traveling often for work or missing grandparents that lived far away. Bravely, a student shared that they were very upset with their parent for arguing with their grandparents, causing them to be apart for some time. Tears were shed while we comforted and supported one another. We made a pact that day to be a family and protect one another rather than hurt each other. We discussed how families fight and let us down and came up with ways to support one another and lead the way for the changes we wanted to see. Without prompting, the students apologized to one another. The remainder of that school year wasn’t perfect because we were a family and arguments arose here and there, but it was nothing like the disrespect we endured in the early days.
Every year after that, I expand on that lesson and to this day, I have students come back to visit and say they miss our family. Many years later, one former student returned to my classroom, eyeing the small desks, and exhaled, saying, “It’s good to be home; I’ve missed this family.”
Family does let us down, but as we prepare to enter the holiday season, may we remember that goodness and peace begin within us. Sometimes we need to let go of the family we were born into and embrace the family we get to choose as friends first.
Anna Rodriguez is a wife, mother, and writer. She is completing her first contemporary novel set in California’s Central Valley. Family and friendships are important themes in Anna’s work because of the influences they have on her life. When Anna is not writing or hanging out with her family, she can be found reading books in many genres or searching for music to add to her eclectic playlist. She recently earned her MFA in Creative Writing.