As a teacher for 36 years in the schools of New Haven I must have used that phrase hundreds of times without giving it much thought. But one time as I routinely uttered that command, I was struck by something for which I was totally unprepared. At the time I was teaching in the heart of what was and still is considered the inner city, the Yale-New Haven Hospital region of the city. Teachers had been instructed by our administrator to always check outside doors to make sure they were closed to the world a few steps away that we did not want our kids to be exposed. A package store was our across the street neighbor as was a used appliance store that stored its wares outside for all to see in rain or shine.
One day while doing hall duty, I found a door to be slightly open on a cold and rainy day so I instinctively went over to check to see why the door appeared to be slightly ajar. To my surprise, I saw a man lying face down in the doorway on the cold, wet sidewalk. Calling the security guard to assist me, he took one look and walked off as if nothing had happened. Apparently, the person in the door was a frequent visitor to the public library which shared a space with the school and he often came in just to keep warm but on this day fell down drunk before he could make it inside. Playgrounds were similarly hazardous as broken bottles riddled the asphalt and shots fired by passing cars could often be heard in the middle of the day so that too was off limits to our students. During report card meetings at night, teachers would meet with parents in a common area, usually the cafeteria, so as to limit the chance of a teacher being attacked in a classroom far removed from the watchful eye of the security guards.
It was these conditions under which I taught for several years and in all that time I was struck not by the number of students who did not do well given their circumstances but by the many who managed to maintain some sense of dignity and hope amid the conditions that even the most tested of us would surely find challenging, to say the least. Such was the case with this one particular student to whom I am referring who made passing the paper forward an experience I have carried with me for a lifetime in teaching.
“Pass your papers forward”, I said after the math homework had been checked that morning. The rustle of twenty-five or so sixth grade students passing papers could be heard over the din of sirens and honking horns on the streets around Howard Ave. Retreating back to my desk to dutifully put a little check mark in the homework section of the grade book I noticed one little girl did not turn in her paper though she was present.
‘Maritza’ (not her real name), I said. ‘I don’t have your paper, did you do the homework?”
‘Yes’, she said shyly and barely audibly not looking up from her desk or making eye contact; a sign of respect I later learned common in the Hispanic culture.
‘Did you do your homework” I asked again.
‘Yes’, she repeated as she had said before.
‘So, when I asked you to pass your paper forward why didn’t you pass your paper?” I held my breath waiting to hear what would I knew would be a novel reason for not doing homework.
‘I didn’t hand it in because you said to hand in your ‘paper’,……. I ……I didn’t use paper” she explained.
With that she proceeded to pull out from her desk three pieces of wood no larger than a medium sized index card on which she had written the math problems from the night before. All were done in pencil and were done correctly. She explained that she looked all over her house but could not find a piece of paper on which to do her homework so she used the only medium she could find which were those three pieces of wood. Unable to imagine such a situation in my own secure world and unable to find the right words to say to make it ok, I retreated back to my desk to give her proper credit for her work the night before. However there is no column in a grade book for ingenuity or resilience or persistence but the character shown by this 12 year old girl stayed with me a lifetime and earned her an A for effort.
I kept those three pieces of wood in my desk drawer at school for many years as a constant reminder of the fragile nature of the students in our charge and the real human life dramas that we as teachers must overcome before we attempt to reach and teach. I lost touch with Maritza. . . and I lost those three pieces of wood in the process of moving to another school some years later, but I never forgot the lessons of humility, understanding and compassion she taught me.
So think of Maritz, as I do, the next time you say to your class, ‘Pass your papers forward.’
Professor Richard Guidone