“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.