I’ve been in the teaching profession for almost 2 years now. And during that span of time, I have many memories to dwell on in idle moments. Most of these recollections are pleasant, but one continues to haunt me – the memory of a boy.
I was a new, idealistic teacher when John Rico entered my grade one class. His mother was a housekeeper, and his father was a farmer tilling a small piece of land. They have 8 children to support.
John Rico came to school in soiled, bedraggled hand-me-downs. He shuffled when he walked, his thin shoulders slumped, and he seldom raised his eyes to meet mine or those of his classmates. He was shunned and ridiculed by the others. When we stand in a circle for P.E. time, his nearest neighbors edged away, as if to avoid possible contamination. I tried to get other children to be with him without embarrassing John Rico – but I wasn’t very successful. John Rico became the class scapegoat. Whenever an object was missing from a chair, the owner’s accusation was swift and harsh: “John Rico stole it!” There were times when I, too, thought he might be guilty. John Rico’s silence when confronted seemed to indicate as such.
Nevertheless, I often came to his defense. “You don’t know that John Rico took it,” I would say. “You should never accuse anyone without proof. Probably you just mislaid it and you’ll find it later.”
And lost objects usually did reappear – a pencil tossed aside, sharpener and erasers borrowed by classmates and sometimes forgotten. But some “lost” objects never were recovered, and I couldn’t help wondering about John Rico. After all, he had many problems from home; and no money to buy gum, marbles, ice candy and other small objects so coveted by a child.
Then one August day it happened. It was Friday – the most trying day of a teacher’s week. Wind and rain added to tension among children. They shoved one another in life, fought during recess, and brought their noisy quarrelling back into the classroom.
As I was attempting to quiet the group, Marvin, who sat back of John Rico, suddenly wailed, “Teacher! John Rico took my peso! It was right here on my armchair when I went to sharpen my pencil and now it’s gone.”
John Rico merely dropped his head lower and shuffled his feet. The one peso coin had certainly been there. I’d seen it. And John Rico was the only one who had been near Marvin’s chair.
By now the children were quiet, obviously waiting for me to take action. Perhaps I wasn’t feeling well that time; or perhaps it was the look of expectation in the children’s eyes when I lost my composure, and there – in front of the boy’s classmates – I committed one of the cruelest acts an adult can inflict on a helpless child. I accused John Rico of being dishonest.
“Give Marvin his money!” I ordered. As usual he said not one word in self-defense.
“Stand up!” He stood beside his chair. “Now turn all your pockets inside out and take out all your notebooks from inside your bag!” He did so trying to cover his “baon” wrapped with banana leaf. But there was no peso.
“Empty your pencil box!” I commanded. Patiently he complied. The peso wasn’t there either. He returned the notebooks and papers to his bag without a word. Then he folded his arms on his armchair and buried his face in them.
Instantly I was aware of the enormity of my offense. John Rico – unwanted, unlovable and unloved, and I, the one person who had defended him and shown him a little affection, had failed him.
It was later that afternoon that one of the boys went to the front of the room to sharpen his pencil.
“Hey!” he cried. “Here’s Marvin’s money on the chalkboard ledge. He must have put it here when he sharpened his pencil.”
I felt relieved – and heartsick. I went to John Rico, still huddled at his chair, and tapped his should. “I’m so sorry, John Rico. I had no right to accuse you. Will you ever forgive me?”
Slowly he raised his eyes to meet me. There was no tears – perhaps he’d already learned the futility of tears – but the hurt in his eyes branded my heart forever.
At last the children headed home. John Rico followed, alone as usual. From the window I watched as he trudged across the muddy playground. Then I went to my table and buried my head in my arms, remembering only that hurt in John Rico’s eyes.
How could I make amends?
For years, I’d wanted to be a teacher – to help children learn to be tolerant, trustworthy, loving individuals. I especially wanted to help children like John Rico who needed to gain confidence and self-respect.
“Train the child in the way he should go, and when he grows up, he will not depart from it.” It is being stated in the scriptures (Proverbs 22:6 ASV) and I had often thought of these words during my teacher training days and even in our Christian Doctrines. Then why had I failed John Rico?
One Saturday morning, I located unused suitable t-shirts for John Rico from my niece who was staying with us.
I found many opportunities to put my arms around John Rico’s shoulders and praise him for some job he had done well. And I gave him errands to do, often involving small sums of money – “because I know I can trust you”. He never betrayed my trust.
Soon I felt a confidence as a teacher that I hadn’t known before. And although I was not able to help John Rico break out of his shell, the real benefit came to me for he helped me to learn a lesson that stayed with me throughout my teaching career and beyond – “practice what you teach.”