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A struggling teacher is blown away by his students.
Driving to work with tears in his eyes, JT was a wreck.  Sitting in traffic, he relived the early morning phone call from his mom.  “Dad has colon cancer.  The doctor says he only has six months to live.”  Then silence.  Then sobbing.  From both ends of the phone.  He said he’d fly home when he could, but after his surgery he didn’t have any more time off so he would try to make it two more weeks until winter break. 

What would he do with his students?  First period would see he had been crying and was clearly absent mentally and emotionally.  He could just tell them what happened.  He wasn’t sure that was fair , and he wasn’t expecting much sympathy, but what else could he do.  After that…. hmmmm.  The rest of the period would be shot unless he thought of some activity.  He could have them write in their journals about what they would do if they only had six months to live.  Some of them might take it seriously.  He could throw in some talk about “empathy,” one of their vocabulary words that seemingly none of them really understood.

Mr. DeWitt’s story about his dad was met with uncomfortable silence.  Usually the class had a hard time settling down.  But this was worse.  They weren’t listening out of respect, they were staring daggers, wondering if he would cry again, or run away, or yell at them, or something.  Usually Mr. DeWitt walked around the room to make sure they were writing, but today he sat at his desk, looking up only occassionally.  Side conversations began, and much of the class didn’t even open their journals. 

JT was crushed.  Today the giggles and goofing off weren’t just obnoxious, and he couldn’t blow it off as seventh graders acting like twelve year olds.  It was personal. They were happy to hear his dad was dying because he felt pain and this was a cause for celebration.  His first year teaching had been rough, but this was the worst day yet.  He had been thinking about quitting, but he knew if he could get to winter break he could rest up and recharge for second semester.  Now he wasn’t so sure.

“Tommy, SIT DOWN!”

“I need to sharpen my pencil.”

“You’ve sharpened it twice already.  And the pencil sharpener is not on Mary’s desk.  Get back to your seat and write in your journal.”

“I’m done.”

“You’re not done.  The assignment was to write for 15 minutes.  If you’re done with the prompt you can write about something else, but you can’t walk around and talk.”

“We’re both done.”

“Tommy, Sit DOWN!”

Why did he bother?  He sleepwalked through the rest of the day, nagging kids to behave and sinking lower when they didn’t oblige.  They threw things and blurted out, walked around and drew on their desks.  Few of them took the journal assignment seriously, and he wasn’t excited about reading their work.  The first four were about spending money on video games and cars and jewelry and fantasies about movie stars.  Totally superficial stuff.  The fifth one was Tommy’s.  JT put it at the bottom of the stack.  He was pretty sure it would just make him feel worse if anything was written at all.  The rest of the stack was no better.  Expecting the last journal to be a perfect ending to an awful day, JT took a deep breath and opened Tommy’s journal. 

“If I had six months to live, I’d be nicer.  There would be no reason to act tough or be mean because nobody can make fun of me when I’m dead.  I would say, “I’m sorry” to the kids that I pick on, just like Billy Madison did.  I would tell my dad to “Fuck off!” and tell him how much I hate him because he’s always drunk and is mean to my mom and keeps getting fired.  After he beat me I would try to make up with him because I really want to be friends with my dad.  Then I would tell my little brother he could take my basketball to the park and sometimes he could play with my friends and me.

“If I only had six months to live I would ask Kim out.  She’s the most beautiful girl in the seventh grade.  My friends rip on me because I talk about her all day but I’ve never said a word to her.  She’s never said a word to me either.  She would say, “no” and then I would ask Mary to be my girlfriend again.  Kim is hotter and I could say I tried, but Mary is more fun and secretly, I like her more than anyone else.  She likes sports and video games like I do.  Plus, she’s smart and knows about lots of good books.  We used to watch movies that nobody had ever heard of together.  Everyone makes fun of Mary for looking like a boy and being a nerd, but I think she is pretty.

“If I only had six months to live I would spend all of my money on new video games and a skateboard.  Well, not all of it.  I would buy my mom a necklace and I would give my big sister flowers.  My mom is really nice, even though she’s embarrassing.  I’m usually a punk to my sister.  She still tries to be nice to me.  I would do my best in school and stop trying to make my teachers mad.  I think I could get a good grade in math if I did my homework and paid attention.  And I’d tell Mr. DeWitt “sorry.”  We only mess with him because it’s his first year and he’s a pushover.”

Below the last line, was a note in a different style of handwriting.  “If you did all of this, God would give you six more months.  Love, Mary.”

The day ended like it began, with JT in tears.

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