Ode to My Socks

One of the perks of teaching is that occasionally you get presents.  Over my (yow!) eighteen years in the classroom, I've been the recipient of books, gift certificates, foodstuffs, knicknacks, and a number of neckties.  Since I have to wear a tie to work every day (though I sometimes cheat and don't wear one to Saturday morning classes), the latter is a highly useful present, and since I don't go tie-shopping for myself all that often, the ones I've received have become a significant part of my work wardrobe.

All of this is a way of prefacing the fact that I wasn't entirely shocked when I got a tie at yesterday's graduation. But it wasn't all I got.

The student who gave me the tie is not the typical Woodberry student.  If I were to engage in blatant stereotyping, I'd draw that typical Woodberry student as a WASP from a private middle school in a southern city where his wealthy Republican father works in banking, law, medicine, or management; "William Beauregard Pickett Hill IV" is the name you expect.  But of course I can quickly think of scores of boys here whose background is nothing like that.  One of them is this tie-giver--"Joe," I'll call him--who hails from up north, went to public school, and may or may not have family members who attended college, but they're definitely not WASPs. 

I taught Joe speech when he was a newcomer here, and I was worried about him.  This school's academic requirements are demanding enough, but its culture puts demands on its students that even those from the "typical" background can find restrictive, frustrating, or isolating.  We don't get dumb kids here, but just being smart isn't enough to get you through. You've got to have an unusual degree of self-motivation, focus, and persistence, and if you don't have those (or develop them soon after arriving), you won't be getting our diploma. In addition, if you become too wrapped up in negotiating the cultural issues, you can find yourself so mired in frustration that maintaining what motivation/focus/persistence you have can become almost impossible.

Joe was obviously bright, but when I first taught him, he was a long way from being able to apply his intelligence effectively. He was often angry, often for good reason, and he seemed to be struggling to find a niche for himself. Having just a wee bit of class awareness lurking in my own makeup, I always try hard to keep kids like Joe on track, offering encouragement to them and doing my best to ensure that my classroom is a place where they can feel like full members of the community. (Note: this doesn't mean I put up with crap from them or let them get away with not doing the work; it means I expect them to give me their best work and I expect their peers to treat them fairly.)  Joe didn't do a bad job for me, but at the end of the year, I wouldn't have bet on his graduating.

By his junior year, though, Joe had found a good friend (ironically enough, a classic "William Beauregard Pickett Hill IV"), a longer temper, and several areas where he could strive for excellence.  I had him in one of my English courses, and though he wasn't a world-beater, he was a solid B student who stayed on top of his assignments and never failed to smile when I made a joke in class.  (This isn't itself a guarantee of a good grade, but it does suggest that you're at least paying attention.)  When he asked me to write him a recommendation for college, I agreed without hesitation.

It's still uncertain exactly what college he'll be attending; he's hoping to get off the waiting list at one school relatively close to home, but the real issue will be financial aid.  He's gotten a good offer at another school further away, though, so he'll be okay wherever he ends up.

Yesterday, following a rather warm ceremony, the newly-graduated Joe walked up to me with a small bag brimming over with red tissue paper, shook my hand, and thanked me for teaching him and recommending him. I told him the gift was completely unnecessary, and that I was proud of how far he'd come--and of how far I expect him to go.  I wished him good luck and sent him off, and when I got home later, I looked into the bag and discovered a very nice Kenneth Cole tie--a generous gift, to be sure, especially from a family that had made considerable sacrifices just to get Joe to Woodberry, let alone get him through college.

But underneath the tie, down amongst the tissue paper's folds, there was more:  three pairs of light brown socks, their TJ Maxx price tag only incompletely peeled off the little plastic display holder.  As Kelly commented when I showed them to her, that shows me something about Joe and his family: that they weren't just offering me something ceremonial, but something real.  Something that didn't just help me look like a Woodberry professor, but that would help me get through the job of BEING a Woodberry professor.  Feet that spend many hours standing in front of a class, or wandering the halls on dorm duty, are feet that need a good pair of socks.  Or three.

So I gratefully accept this gift, and note that I'll think of Joe and his days at Woodberry as long as I'm wearing those socks, and that I'll forever associate him with the wise words of Pablo Neruda:

beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.

Thanks, Joe.  A posse ad esse.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on May 24, 2009 11:44 AM.

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