A teacher strives to pass 'the Michael test'

As I near the day of my retirement from public school teaching, I find myself slipping into reflective moods a great deal. The most common subject of these reflections is to wonder whether my efforts have made the difference in the lives of children that I hoped they would when my career first began.

None of us has a truly objective way to measure success or failure, but my instincts tell me that I have done more good than harm in the past 36 years.

But I also remember that I have long had a more precise assessment tool for my effectiveness. I call it "the Michael test" and I trust in its accuracy.

Michael first appeared in my life very briefly in January 1965. I was in my sophomore year at Colby College, and that institution's "January Plan" had led me to perform a month of volunteer work at a settlement house in the Roxbury section of Boston.

At that point in my life, I still viewed myself as a candidate for the seminary. I had grown up in a small Massachusetts community where there were few educated professionals I could adopt as role models. The two I finally chose were my sixth-grade teacher/principal and the young pastor of the local Congregational church.

From my point of view they had successfully parlayed their interest in reading and education into positions of respect in the community. And respect seemed to me a worthwhile life goal.

While my mother would tell me later that she always knew that I would become a schoolteacher, I remember placing the pulpit on a higher plane than I did the classroom.

So I spent that cold January testing myself. The house, among its many activities, ran a daycare/school facility not a great deal different from what later became known as Head Start.

Because I was a white male, the two teachers there asked me to spend time playing with the children.

Both teachers shared with me their concerns that the only white men the children ever had contact with were public-authority figures - and these contacts were not always positive. They thought it would be good for the children to be around a nonuniformed white man as they played.

I just thought it would be fun to hang out with the kids.

The cement play area in the basement was a meager substitute for the neighborhood park. But winter weather kept us indoors, so this space became their playground. The beams that held up the building became logical route markers in all of their games.

I had been aware of Michael from my first day there. His winning smile and sense of vitality had made him one of my early favorites. But it was his bike riding that propelled him into my life.

He was racing with the others when he took a sudden spill. He did not injure himself physically, but clearly his pride was wounded.

I remember seeing him sitting on the floor, crying and pondering his choices. Certainly either one of his teachers would provide the needed comfort.

But he chose me instead.

No one could have been more amazed than I was that day. My personal logic system had told me that he would choose one of the women. But, for his own reasons, he found comfort in me, something no one had ever done before. I held him in my lap until the tears stopped and he was ready to return to play.

I told my mother this story one evening and found myself crying about Michael as I relayed it. I had seen enough of Roxbury and had read enough of what Jonathan Kozol was writing about the Boston public schools to know that Michael's life would probably be a difficult one. I knew there was very little I could do to change his life. After all, I was headed back to Maine in February. But that smile and that moment when he held onto me stayed in my memory.

That spring I rerouted my career. Now I wanted to do for my students those things that I could not do for Michael. Or at least I would try.

I have thought of him countless times over the intervening years whenever I question some action I am about to take. Would it pass the "Michael test?" Would Michael still choose me if he could see what I was about to do? And now I am ready to apply this test to my whole career.

I hope the answer is in the affirmative.

Larry Sears has taught high school reading and social studies for 36 years.

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