volunteer stories, domestic service, education

Teaching Confidence, Linguistics and Magic Words at Public School 7

I sit beside a second grade student as she repeats, over and over again, “Lollipop. Lollipop.” After smoothly annunciating the word, she grins at me, knowing that a handful of gummy bears awaits her in my backpack as a reward for her linguistic workout.

I check the time: thirty minutes until lunch, and then a change in gears. The next part of my day will carry me across the sunny school courtyard from the Special Education room to fifth grade. I picture the classroom, and one face in particular materializes in my mind: the face of a student who stormed from ELA in tears just this morning. Frustration radiated from his eyes and his stone cold face as I knocked, knocked, trying to find a way to guide him through the tangled emotions gripping his mind.

In the past month, which has felt like both a year and like a minute, I’ve been sitting, standing, and speaking with the students at Ps 7. Through the chaos of finding my footing within a fast-paced work environment, my main focus has been helping my students find the right words; and along the way, I’m expanding my own vocabulary.

My day begins at 7:15. I drag two life-size orange cones into the street and stand by the sidewalk, ready to open doors. “Good morning, I’m so happy to see you,” I announce as students pour out of cars, shoelaces and backpacks trailing.

I follow them inside and position myself by the door with a clipboard, pen poised to mark students as “tardy.” To my embarrassment, I ask several students each day, “what is your last name again?” Shaking their heads, they laugh, “Miss Laura we go through this every day!” In shame I respond, “I know. I’ll remember, I promise!” And I ink the name into my mind.

Over the loudspeaker, a student announces, “The word of the week is please.” For the rest of the day, as students request bathroom breaks, extra ketchup, or a band aid, I say “what’s the magic word?”

At Ps7, there are “magic words,” and also words that can perform magic. Words that can perform magic, and words that feel like a punch to the gut. I read a math test aloud to a fifth grade student. “I can’t do it,” he groans through his hands, and his head hits the table. “I’m not smart enough.” The pressure weighs on my lips as I consider my response. I give the words as much gusto as I can, hoping that they help this student soar higher than the paper airplanes his class made during science yesterday. “You can do it. You are smart, and you have it in you to get through this.” His pen hits the paper, and I release my breath.

Sometimes, I’ll write down the hilarious, wild things that my students say to me, and I wish that I could remember every single one. And while a written record of our many conversations might be impossible, their words affect my internal language a little bit each week. I’m remembering to look for the why behind what they do and say. I reflect on how — how I, in a teaching position, can learn from this experience. Finally, what I can do to be there with them, witnessing their remarkable journeys.

Laura Lynch

Laura Lynch grew up in Hingham, Massachusetts before attending Fordham University in New York City. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English and in French Studies, and participated in service-leading, cultural immersion projects that inspired her to apply to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. This year, she will serve at St. HOPE Public School in Sacramento, California. In her free time, Laura enjoys swimming, hiking, photography, and reading.