I had quite a tumultuous time in college. But luckily, I had a professor who went out of her way to check in on me periodically. When she’d ask “How are you?”, I could tell that she genuinely cared to hear the answer.
Each time she’d ask, I’d pitifully disclose my drama d’jour and, with a quiet yet confident demeanor, she’d listen intently. She never did much but listen; but, she’d always tell me how sorry she was that my bag of rocks was getting so heavy.
The concept of rocks as an elegant metaphor really resonated with me. I spent hours perseverating on how we all have a certain amount of troubles weighing us down and unavoidable burdens we have to carry. And, that no matter how I figured, nobody had the same amount of rocks. It just didn’t seem fair that maybe I had more rocks to carry than others or that others had more rocks to carry than me. I knew how unbearable my life felt at the time and I certainly couldn’t fathom carrying many more.
Fast forward to my last semester. I was student teaching at a rural elementary school in an inclusive math class. There were 17 students, about half of which had IEPs. They had all been categorized as the lower third of performers in math in 5th grade according to the previous year’s standardized test.
About a week into my tenure, I received a new student. She was diagnosed with autism and was small for her age. She was soft-spoken, meek and almost immediately picked on for her dirty and mismatched clothes she’d wear day after day. As I got to know her, I found out just how many rocks she lugged around. Her mother and her mother’s girlfriend had abruptly moved the family down to Alabama from Seattle, running from whom I presumed to be an abusive biological father. Not a month later, her mom left from Alabama to lord knows where, leaving behind only a note on wide-ruled notebook paper giving custody of her daughter to the other woman running the household. When the counselor made a home visit, it was discovered that she lived underground in a bunker that had been built decades before as a safe house in case of nuclear war.
Everyday that my students came to class, more and more was revealed about the poverty in which they lived and the weight and number of the rocks in their bags. I spent most of my time at that school trying to understand what my identity as a teacher was, split between an eagerness to make an impact and a resentment about having to teach 5th grade math with a rigid curriculum. As I cleared a path to graduation, I realized the most important thing I could do in my short time was (try) to lighten their load (especially, since I felt that I wasn’t really helping them move along in math).
More specifically, I felt a calling to make sure this new student knew I was there not only as academic support, but also emotional. I figured if I could carry her rocks for a while at school, it would make them easier for her to carry at home. So everyday I did what had been done for me: I asked her how she was doing and listened to her tangents when she shared in class.
The week before I was to leave, she presented me with a rock, a real rock. I thought it was odd, but before I could even say thank you, she said “I got this rock for you. I picked out the biggest, prettiest rock at the bus stop.” I said thank you and made a huge deal about how much it meant to me because I knew that’s what I should do. But it wasn’t until later that I realized what a grand gesture that had really been. She had only gotten me a rock (I had two other co-teachers) and even though she had no money, she went out of her way to show her appreciation.
Recently I found this rock in a bucket of memorabilia from my college days. I don’t know this girl anymore and I honestly can’t even remember her name. But, I remember wanting to relieve her from some of her burden. Then, it hit me: by giving me a physical rock, she was thanking me for metaphorically lightening her load, even if for only a little while. She trusted me enough to figuratively give me some of her burden. I wanted a way to commemorate her, wherever she is these days, so I decided to put the rock in my purse and continue to carry a small part of her load.
I frequently find the rock when I’m looking for my keys or cleaning out receipts and it gives me pause. I like to think this rock represents the tiny bit of burden I lifted from her and I have the privilege to carry that burden with me everywhere I go.
There are a lot of ways we can help students to alleviate the weight of their troubles like teaching them skills that help them carry their weight more efficiently and empowering them to get rid of rocks they don’t need.
But, sometimes the easiest and most impactful way is to show them that you’re willing to carry a little bit of it for them.