“Listen up, class!” The ninth-grade teacher is using her powerful, no-nonsense voice. “Eyes up front! I want everyone to hush and give Mister Dietrich your full attention.”
It is a weekday afternoon. I am staring into my computer webcam. I am a thousand miles away from their classroom, on a video conference call with Mrs. Barry’s ninth-graders.
I see my face on the computer monitor. I resemble a doe staring into the highbeams of an oncoming Peterbilt semi.
“Hi,” I say.
I am greeted with mumbles. I don’t know what it is about ninth-graders, but they are expert mumblers.
Mrs. Barry is unsatisfied with this communal muttering. “I couldn’t hear you, class.”
The class repeats the greeting, and they sound like grim robots. “Hello, Mister Dietrich.”
I don’t like it when they call me Mister Dietrich. I have spoken in many schools over the years, teachers always insist on students using this salutation. “Mister Dietrich” makes me sound like the defendant.
I can tell the kids are bored. I briefly consider whipping up some “technical difficulties” on my end and signing off. But a deal is a deal. And I promised to speak to Mrs. Barry’s class of remedial students, most of whom are falling behind in their studies.
We are supposed to be talking about English. The students have prepared written questions, which they will recite from index cards, addressing the giant head on the projector screen.
My giant head.
A boy stands. He reads his question. “I like your story about church potlucks. What’s your favorite casserole?” He sits.
I clear my throat like a guy under oath. “Chicken divan casserole.”
The class gives no response. Crickets. I am dying.
So I expound upon the finer points of the finest chicken-curry casserole to ever be perpetuated by the fundamentalist women of my childhood, then I invite more questions.
A girl stands. “How long did it take to grow your beard?”
This is going to be a long day.
I answer more questions. I sneak more glances at my wristwatch. I have not heard any questions relating to the English language yet. But I am a patient man.
Next, the class clown stands to ask his question. You can always spot the clown. I brace for impact.
He reads from a notecard. “Budweiser or Bud Light?”
The teacher is about to experience a cardiac event. She instructs me not to answer. Then she explains the inappropriate nature of the question to the class. Although in case you were wondering: Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Then our little classroom period takes a sharp turn. There are kids in the back rows who don’t look like the other children.
I know from my preliminary meeting with the teacher that these are the extreme remedial kids. These are the ones falling so far behind they can’t see daylight. I know all about kids like this. I was that kid.
When you’re a young person, nobody tells you that in order to succeed in school (or in life) your homelife must be in working order. Because when your homelife sucks, everything sucks.
Every kid has a pyramid of basic needs. Remove the bottom building blocks of security, safety, and self-esteem, and the whole pyramid topples. My own Giza Necropolis has fallen a few times.
A child stands. He is tall, lanky, soft spoken. He has a pronounced stutter. “I wanna go into sports journalism,” he says. “But I am…” Long pause. “I’m sorta dyslexic. Any advice for me?”
I find myself at a loss. I do my best to tell this beautiful boy that I’ve grown up feeling the same way he does. I’m convinced that I, too, have a mild learning disability. But I detest giving advice because I’m unqualified. I have never walked in his Nikes.
So my response is pitiful. I feel badly that I have no magic bullets or cure-alls for him. This is harder than I thought.
Next a young lady stands. She looks shy. She recites her question. “Hi, Mister Dietrich. I just wanted to say that you’re one of my favorite writers.”
I feel two puddles growing where my eyes used to be. My throat tightens. I give my most sincere response. “You’re gonna go places, kid.”
The last question comes from a girl with long hair and a frail frame. It takes a lot of courage to ask her particular question before peers, but she speaks strongly.
“I read that your dad committed suicide. My mom did the same thing. What should I do to feel better?”
The classroom grows calm. Nobody belittles the young woman. Nobody cracks a joke. Even the clown is behaving.
And I’m her age once again.
I start to answer, but I never get to. Because immediately, one student rises from his desk and slips his arm around the girl. Then two more students huddle around her. They are holding her, sitting beside her.
I am so touched by the image occurring 1,300 miles away that I forget all about the horrors of our world, the arguments, the violence, and the disappointments thereof. Instead I am watching the empathy of American children. Our children. God’s children.
Mrs. Barry wraps up our session. “What do we say, class?”
“Thank you, Mister Dietrich.”
Well. It certainly wasn’t the worst day I’ve ever had.
Lander - April 19, 2021 7:31 am
And, they wrapped their arms around the 9th trade you, too.
Joe Dorough - April 19, 2021 9:47 am
Precious. This helps our faith in mankind.❤️
Leigh Amiot - April 19, 2021 10:11 am
I am in awe of the courage of the young woman with the long hair and frail frame…she asked for help…and for the ones who comforted her, I am so proud of them. Sean, you have undoubtedly given this young woman hope by sharing your story.
stephenpe - April 19, 2021 10:23 am
And this is why I detest the politicians that run our state, Sean. They believe teachers work with an inanimate raw material you just shovel information into and test. They have no clue that all participants in a classroom are human beings. I taught for 40 years. Children need so much more than what the state deems important. Thank you.
elizabeth - April 19, 2021 10:40 am
Wow! just Wow! dang watered down coffee….
Ann - April 19, 2021 11:17 am
All I can say is….whew!❤️😢
Brenda - April 19, 2021 11:20 am
Huge puddles where my eyes used to be! Sharing your story gave this girl the courage to reach out for help; thank you, Sean, for sharing your story.
Tammy S. - April 19, 2021 11:44 am
Sean, don’t ever, EVER doubt that you make a difference. Especially where those kids are concerned. Kids today need to see and hear from more people like you: real, honest, transparent, hopeful, and just maybe a little uncertain and even a little intimidated. Kids act so tough, but I’ve learned, they just want to be heard, to hear, to be seen and above all loved. And love oozes off of you for others in a simple, genuine way. Kids know real when they see it. Also, my Mamaw Irvin always told me, “Tammy Joyce, don’t worry all the time about doing something right (I’m a tad perfectionist), just make yourself available for whatever He puts in front of you, do your best and He’ll do the rest. Sounds like you & God did REAL good for this one. And those classmates, they nailed it! Powerful moment!! Sometimes hugs, and no words at all, are just the best and only thing that will help. Hugs to you.
Debbie g - April 19, 2021 12:30 pm
Love and hugs for all of us
Harriet - April 19, 2021 12:33 pm
It’s a good thing you didn’t fake technical difficulties!
Jan - April 19, 2021 12:44 pm
Too beautiful for words … only tears will do it justice! Thank you, Sean, for all you do!
Jill Byrd - April 19, 2021 12:49 pm
❤️Love this. This is so typical. A lot of students want to be funny and draw attention of their peers by asking superficial funny questions . The ones hurting sometimes slip through the cracks in a class full of laughter. I love the heart of these students embracing that sweet girl. Thank you for encouraging and inspiring even when you are not speaking. Your life stories resonate with so many. It is comforting to know someone else has walked through something similar and used it for good.
Christina - April 19, 2021 3:21 pm
There is hope. Thank you Mr. Dietrich!
Jonathan Machen - April 19, 2021 3:51 pm
Bob Brenner - April 19, 2021 3:56 pm
Thanks for sharing this beautiful story❤️
Jenny Young - April 19, 2021 4:42 pm
Oh Sean…everyone feels inadequate….seriously..we all do no matter our past or present circumstances. But if we each make sure that people feel loved, that we hear & that we care, the rest doesn’t matter. We don’t need to know the answers. We just need to make sure that each person knows that even with all their flaws they are important & wanted by this world. You do that with your writing & I expect you do a pretty good job of it when speaking as well.
Bob E - April 19, 2021 5:18 pm
As profound and debilitating our problems may be someone somewhere is worse off.
Pray for those who need help of any type.
And Sean kindly continue your gratifying accounts which inevitably contain worthwhile messages and suggestions.
God bless you and your writing talents.
Linda Moon - April 19, 2021 5:32 pm
Sometimes speaking at or teaching school can easily make one feel like the defendant vs. a roomful or zoomful of fourth, fifth, or ninth-graders. Remedial students were often less intimidating for me. I’ve always had a heart for kids/adults/animals in need of extra help. The imagery I saw here for ALL children blurred my eyes. You’re one of my favorite writers, too, Mister Dietrich.
Bill - April 19, 2021 8:05 pm
Leave it to our children to do what we adults should
Christopher Spencer - April 19, 2021 9:03 pm
It seems that us adults often belittle the youth of today. I think that has been true of every generation since Adam and Eve.
But kids can sometimes surprise us with how good they can be, given the chance.
Judy Hill Delk - April 20, 2021 12:46 am
You’re killin’ me here, Sean. How can folks do such a selfish act to their husbands, wives, and children? God bless and sustain that little girl.
CHARLA JEAN - April 20, 2021 1:13 am
Puddles are forming where MY eyes used to be!!! ❤️
Barclay Godwin - April 20, 2021 3:33 am
You are a living testament to surviving life’s potholes.
In case you forget, those children are why you tell your story.
Keep telling it! You are making a difference!
Donna Melikian - April 20, 2021 3:12 pm
Your stories bring tears to my eyes so many times. But they are good tears. My husband and daughter are dyslexic. He was told He would never make it through college and would be a failure. He finished finally and has struggled with some aspects of life, but we have been married fifty three years today.
We have had a good life. Now He has chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He takes chemo pills everyday and is doing extremely well. He plays tennis 2 or 3 times a week. We are blessed in so many ways. My daughter also struggled and quit collage in her senior year after changing majors many times. She became a paramedic and now has PTSD from so many horrible experiences. She is married and is extremely creative. She was adopted and struggled,in her late teens, with information from her adoption home that we never knew. We have a very loving relationship with her and her husband. At age twelve I lost my father. I won’t explain but it was very sudden and has affected my whole life. I am rambling on. I guess I am just saying life is a hard struggle, but our faith and gratefulness has helped us survive. Thank you for all the uplifting stories.
DiAn - April 20, 2021 9:13 pm
Sean – Thank you for sharing this! It gives me Hope for the future of our species and our world. Especially after all these wonderful children have been through. Please – Keep on writing.