For sheer heartbreak, few jobs can match being an elementary school teacher.
They see the society the rest of us only read about. Nowhere is that more apparent than an essay today from a fifth-grade teacher on WBUR’s Cognoscenti blog, who had to be the one to tell her student that he was being sent to foster care.
His father was in prison. His mother, a victim of domestic abuse, was unable to care for him.
And so Anne Richardson got to be the one to send him away.
Steven appeared at the classroom door, having been plucked from his lunch table before recess. He stared up at me, his sad eyes telling me volumes. No stranger to crisis, he knew something big was happening. My words over the next few moments would solidify his worst fears. I feared that he would forever associate me with his displacement.
I forced myself to adopt a cheerful tone, in spite of the sorrow I felt in my core. I told Steven that he was going to meet some new people who would take care of him for a while. I gently suggested, “Let’s pack up your backpack, OK?”
Steven protested. “Does my mom know? My mom wouldn’t let me go away.”
What can you possibly say to a child asking such a painful question?
Because of the privacy rules that prevail in situations like Steven’s, I had no idea whether or not his mother knew. So I tried to comfort him by promising that she would visit him in his new surroundings as soon as she could.
“I don’t want to go,” he said.
I told him that it would be a good place, that he’d meet new friends. “I’ll bet they like to skateboard and play baseball there, too.”
“Why can’t I stay here with you?” Steven asked.
And it went on like that, back and forth, his quiet but persistent questions, my strained optimism, until the phone interrupted us again. It was time to walk him down to the lobby. I vaguely remember sliding the books and card into his backpack and telling him to open up a little present from me once he got onto the bus. I gave him a hug and, moments later, Steven was gone.
Over the years, she made some inquiries about whatever happened to her one-time student.
Only last week, she writes, did she find out, when she opened the newspaper.
Now 19, he was under arrest for domestic violence.
“I was powerless against his parents’ choices, their unwitting perpetuation of poverty and frustration, society’s harsh expectations and an overburdened state bureaucracy,” she says.