Sixth-grader Connor came to tutoring with his head down. No friendly greeting. No eye contact. As he slunk down in his chair, I caught a glimpse of his tear–streaked face.
“You had a hard day,” I said.
“Can I go to the bathroom?” he asked. I know Connor. A bathroom break is his escape when the tutoring gets too intense. Now, life was too intense.
Clearly, Connor had been crying all the way over. So it took him a little while to get a handle on things in the privacy of the bathroom. Finally, the flush. Faucet on. Long streams of water on his hands, on his face. Faucet off. He was ready.
“Wanna talk about it, Connor?”
He shook his head.
“Okay, let’s get started. We’re going to read a story called ‘The White House.’ The comprehension strategy we’ll use is main idea and supporting details. So, what do you already know about the White–”
“My teacher took my laptop away.”
I leaned back in my chair and nodded. I was on sacred ground.
“She thought I was playing with a flight simulator. I wasn’t. The icon for my flight simulator looks almost exactly the same as the Word icon. Same colors, same shape. I clicked on it by accident.”
It should be known that Connor is a born pilot. Or plane designer. He talks of nothing but. So having a flight simulator on his laptop sounded like vintage Connor.
His tears started anew. My tissue box finds good use in my tutoring business, usually to capture nasal bacteria, but Connor’s distress was equally deserving. He wiped his eyes, blew his nose, and continued.
“I told her it was a mistake, but she said she’s seen me before looking at planes during class.”
He lifted his arms in dismay. “Hey, my screensaver is an airplane. What can I say? I like airplanes. But that doesn’t mean I’m doing something wrong.”
His tears continued to flow.
Oh, the heartache of being a sixth-grade boy. Too old to cry, but the tears won’t stop. Supposed to be tough, but life knocks you down. Trying hard to make it seem like it doesn’t matter, but wanting so much to please. What can I ever say to restore his sense of well-being?
“You know, Connor, something like that happened to me once.”
He kept his eyes glued to the floor.
I told him about the time my second-grade teacher accused me of chewing gum. It went like this.
It was quiet work time, and I was busy filling in the blanks of my worksheet. I was a conscientious student. Suddenly, I – make that the entire class — heard my teacher’s admonition, which caught me completely by surprise. “Margaret, spit that gum out.”
Since I was the only Margaret in that 1950s class of Mary Anns, Mary Kays, and Mary Beths, I looked up.
“I don’t have gum in my mouth,” I said.
“Oh, yes, you do. I saw you chewing. Don’t lie to me.”
I could feel heat coloring my cheeks.
“No, I don’t,” I said quietly, aware that everyone was looking by now.
“Well, if it’s not gum, then it’s candy. Whatever it is, get rid of it.”
“I don’t have anything in my mouth,” I pleaded one more time.
“We’ll all just wait until you take that gum out of your mouth.” She folded her arms.
What was I going to do? How could I get rid of something if there was nothing there? She wouldn’t believe me, everyone was watching, and my mouth was empty. Well, maybe there were a few toast crumbs remaining from breakfast. Okay, okay. I snuck out without brushing my teeth, okay? But gum or candy? I knew better. I would never break a school rule.
I had no choice. I had to end this distressing standoff.
Slowly, I got out of my seat. I walked between the rows of desks to the front of the class, bent over the wastebasket, and pretended to take something out of my mouth.
My teacher stood, arms still folded, smiling in triumph as I made the long trek back to my seat.
“You know what, Connor? She ended up becoming a pretty famous children’s writer.”
Connor perked up.
“Did you ever tell her?” he asked, his dry eyes sparkling with conspiracy.
“You know what? I did. I wrote her a letter and sent it to her through her publisher. I said, ’’ just want you to know that I really didn’t have gum in my mouth that day.’”
Connor laughed. “Did she write back?”
“No. But at least I finally got my say.”
Connor relaxed into his chair, chuckling to himself.
“So, Connor, the question is, were you playing with your flight simulator at school?”
“Then your teacher was wrong. That’s all there is to it.”
Of course, knowing what I know as a teacher, I felt obligated to add one tiny caveat.
“And if you were, well, just don’t do it again. But, of course, you said you weren’t, and that’s all I need to know.”