by an anonymous teacher

The fourth grade students were returning to their classroom after their work in the cow barn. A pungent smell of manure permeated their clothing. Each child had curried (brushed) her “adopted” cow. They did this activity every Wednesday throughout the winter. Having returned to the same cow each week, they often formed caring relationships with their milk cows. The currying helped the farmer who was often too busy to consistently do this task. The children also did barn chores. They scraped the manure, threw down hay and cleaned the barn.

The children entered the barn in hushed tones, for it was the cows resting time. Forty five cows, all chewing their cuds, greeted them. Before entering the cows’ stall, each child called her cow’s name and watched for a responsive twitch of the ear. Then the child placed her warm hand on the haunch of the cow, entered the cow’s stanchion and proceeded to curry the whole cow. The students contentedly curried for 10 to 20 minutes.

Our barn time was over, we were returning to the classroom to write in our cow journals. Charles was a few steps behind me. He was walking with a friend. Charles was tall and thin. He had curly hair and dark brown eyes. He was a sensitive, nervous child who had experienced loss at an early age. His behavior was often disruptive. His comments were often sarcastic. This 10 year old could be so disconnected that he put soil in his mouth and chewed on little insects. He had an air of “not caring” about anything.

So as we were returning to school, Charles made a sarcastic remark about his cow and the barn. I proceeded to react and to break a cardinal rule of the teacher. I said, “Charles, you always have a comment.” I expected his reply to be “no I don’t” or “it doesn’t matter” or “I don’t care.” Instead he took a moment to respond. He became concentrated, looked me in the eye (for really the first time) and said softly, “Mrs Laurence, I don’t always have a comment.” This was the truth. We had a few moments of a locked gaze and then a softening of both of our eyes. I nodded at him and quietly apologized. We entered the classroom and wrote in our journals.

After this incident, I noticed that Charles worked with more effort. He took pride in his work. He was willing to show he cared about his cow and his other tasks. We had worked together for three years. There had been hundreds of encounters that lead up to that particular moment. Each meeting with its own, perhaps undetected, subtle effect. This is the humble striving of a teacher to help balance and nourish a growing human being.

Many days later, I smiled as I saw Charles leading his well-dressed grandmother to meet his cow in the barn.

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