It’s about love, people

Please welcome the first member of the #unitecloud writers circle, Melissa Williams Marolf! Melissa will share stories each month with us about her life and her work as a English as a Second Language teacher at Apollo High School in St. Cloud.

What would drive me to spend my days and hours teaching children who, as teens, walk into my classroom reading and writing in English at a first or second grade level? I hold a teaching licensure in both the teaching of English as a Second Language and in Secondary English (meaning I could be teaching mainstream students Language Arts in grades 7-12). I have a Master’s degree, and I could be teaching at a community college, or as an adjunct at a four year university. Why would I choose to spend time in a high school where the free and reduced lunch rate is pushing into the 70th percentile, where the needs are so great and the poverty, while largely hidden, is indeed the reality for seven of the ten kids whom I walk by in the hallway every hour of the day? There are certainly days and hours when I wonder what and why and how and for what purpose do I tend to my students. The mountains seem insurmountable, and the challenges seem much greater than any small thing I can do in the course of a day, a month, a nine month school year. But if not I, then whom?

You see, despite the difficulties and the troubles that I encounter on a daily basis, there are the children. I spend six hours each day hanging out with teenagers. There are moments when I contemplate, after a long afternoon of dealing with students who have emotional and physical needs that are far beyond what I feel I can reach sometimes, that I question my calling and my vocation. I have a tough day, and wonder, “What am I doing this for? It’s too much. I am tired. I am tired. I am just plain tired.”

I had a dark day this past week, on Wednesday. My afternoon class has been the most challenging of my nine year career at Apollo High School. That day, we were learning about the inside of the human body, and, as I taught, I felt that my skills were failing me and that I was failing my students (as I have felt on many days this school year). My patience had worn thin, I had attended too many meetings, and I felt like my students were just not interested in learning. I told myself that they were not motivated, that my methods were bunk, and that I was not, indeed, cut out for this hard work. I left that day with a dark cloud over my head. I thought that perhaps my choice in vocation was misguided and that, really, I should find something else to do, somewhere else to work.

I went to sleep on Wednesday night exhausted and weary. But, I’m grateful for rest and new starts. I awoke the next morning and kicked myself into gear, a fresh day at my feet. I reminded myself of my student population, whom I am serving, what they have endured.

A Somali elder had told me and my colleagues some years ago that a new tide of children would soon be entering our doors and that they would, indeed, be the least of these among us. Their parents, victims of the civil war in Somalia, were not part of the educated elite and thus had little monies in their family coffers to get out of the refugee camps in Kenya or Ethiopia earlier. Many of my students come as children of single parents, usually mothers who have lost their spouses to war, famine, or disease. These women are indomitable souls who have waited endlessly for years to reach this place, this land, this Minnesota. They had to loiter and wait and wait and wait on the darn lottery, for their number to come up, for their dreams to be realized, for freedom, for a way out. Yes, a way out, thank God.

These women are indomitable souls who have waited endlessly for years to reach this place, this land, this Minnesota.

And this tide of children, the least of these who have been born and raised in refugee camps, are here. They are my afternoon class, the one that drove me to my knees on Wednesday. These children are a vivid snapshot of the injustice that civil war and turmoil can wreak on the young, and how living in a refugee camp all your life can take a real and heartbreaking toll. Of the 21 students in my afternoon class, I believe that ten could qualify for Special Education services. In my nine years at Apollo, I have referred about that many overall to Special Education, so the needs of my particular class continue to surprise and challenge me. Most of these ten youngsters came to me after being in school at Apollo for two years prior. They struggled mightily in those two years, not through any fault of their own – they are victims of poverty, malnutrition, trauma, and war. The results of these issues are easy to see: a lack of ability to grasp concepts, difficulty focusing, fidgeting, exhaustion, anger and frustration with their lack of progress (as they would love nothing more than to succeed). And so, what to do? How to teach them? I’ve referred many of them to Special Education, but the waiting on that process is not going to fix their learning issues today.

And this is where the love enters in and the frustrations and the hardship must be put aside. I had assigned my students to write thank you notes to whomever they wished earlier in the week; they were due on Thursday. Love notes came pouring in like water that day, to me and to my colleagues, to mothers and sisters and brothers. Notes of thanks for patience, and for acts of kindness. Notes of gratitude for food, for homework help, for clothing, and for love spread wide.

And guess which class shed the most love on me? The afternoon, of course! I wept as I read those notes on Thursday morning:

Dear Mrs. Marolf,
Thank you for teaching us. I love how you teach us. Thank you for helping me to learn new things. Thank you for being so, so kind. I am so happy to be your student. I’m so excited to learn new things every day. I love you. I love you. I love you.”

On and on it went. Love poured out, just when I needed it. This is why I step back into the fray, even when it’s hard, even when I feel I can’t take another step.

It’s love, people, and it conquers on even the most difficult of days.

My steps into Thursday and Friday were lighter, my students were focused and at the ready. And I know that it’s the love that will keep me stepping back into Room 510 on Monday, hoping beyond myself that the work I do will endure and make a difference for the least of these, on this very day, and for years ahead.