I am NOT an athlete, nor do I play one on TV. I am terribly uncoordinated at any type of sporting — or walking — endeavor. As a child, I was always chosen last for teams in PE, asked to go to the bathroom to avoid dodgeball games, and always went first in HORSE because the next two kids were top athletes and wanted a real competition. In college, I tried to join a Christian intramural volleyball game. They made me scorekeeper after one round. (Yeah, I am that bad.)
Most school kids love the day that I dreaded most as a child — FIELD DAY. While my peers relished thoughts of snow cones, sack races, and three-legged wars, all I could think of was bruises, falling, and yet one more “participation” ribbon.
You see, at the end of every field day teachers would have kids count and sort their ribbons. Most kids had a rainbow of yellow (third), red (second), and blue (first) at their desks. But very few of us — okay one of us — had no ribbons and would quickly be given a pale, faded brown honorable mention ribbon. I hated that ribbon. It was a symbol of my failure.
In May of sixth grade, at the end of my last field day ever, I was once again licking my perceived wounds by a tree — half sad, half grateful that this period of my life was over. The PE teacher saw me and came over with a red ribbon in her hand. She did her best to make up some story about how she and the other teachers realized a mistake had been made, and that surely I had come in second in the sack race and they had missed it somehow. The other teachers even put on a show of arguing when I glanced their way. Now, I loved these people, but they would not have won any Oscars for their performance. However, I thanked them for seeing this “error” and accepted the ribbon.
It was a pity ribbon, and I knew it. So why is that ribbon still in my memory drawer some 32 years later? Because it was not about the ribbon; it was about being seen.
I have now been on the other side of the educational system as an elementary school teacher for over 20 years, and this is a lesson I try to remember every day. Our students go through so much beyond the school doors that we never see, but we can make a difference when we have them. We can go beyond their academic needs and truly see them.
A kind comment, a simple sticker, or even a “Hey, I found this fish pencil and thought of that story you told me about the beach” moment can alter a student’s life. We must make the most of small moments with ALL of our kids — whether they are talented athletes or uncoordinated scholars, popular kids or outcasts, come from wealthy families or poor ones.
It has been said that “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” I would add that students cannot learn if they are not seen by at least one. Be that person — ask about their day, comment on their hair, ask about their new baby brother or their Fortnite shirt. Be the person who sees them.
As a 21-year veteran teacher, I am still terribly uncoordinated. I still end up as scorekeeper during staff vs. student games. And I am still grateful for that pity ribbon. It made me a better teacher. And, to Mrs. Susan Floyd: I don’t know if you are still teaching or if you will ever see this, but thank you. You never knew it, but that moment of being seen changed me for the better.
Stacey Jefferson is a 2020-21 Tennessee Educator Fellow. She teaches third-grade English language arts at Thomas Magnet School and has worked in Bedford County Schools since 2002. Find her on Twitter as @MrsJingrade3 or connect via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.