the one who haunts you {learning to work with parents}

Ryan Kennelly. There is always a reason why you remember their names, even when you’ve known thousands, tens of thousands of names. Ryan Kennelly. Football player. Second row. Third seat back. This is all I knew about him after the first six weeks of school.

I didn’t know the color of his eyes. I didn’t know that he loved to read. I didn’t know his mom wasn’t around. I just knew if he didn’t care enough about language arts to stay awake in class, then I didn’t care enough to wake him up.

He had an F at midterm. That happens when you never complete any work. The afternoon after midterm reports went home, I flicked off my classroom light and turned to find a man standing in the classroom doorway. Ryan Kennelly stood behind him, his head down.

“Mrs. Ayres? I’m Ryan’s dad.” The work boots on his feet,along with his  jeans and shirt were coated with dirt that can only come from hard work. He shook my hand. His hands were rough, but his fingernails were clean. “I wanted to talk to you about Ryan’s grade.”

His eyes were kind. He reached behind him and put his hand behind Ryan’s shoulder, gently moving him up to the conversation. I noticed Ryan’s eyes were the same warm brown as his dad’s.

He wasn’t the parent I expected for a kid who sleeps in class. I stumbled through explaining that Ryan didn’t complete any work, so he was failing.

Mr. Kennelly nodded. He squeezed Ryan’s shoulder and looked me straight in the eyes. “Why didn’t you call me?”

I didn’t know five words could be filled with such disappointment. I couldn’t answer him because the truth was so wrong: I didn’t think you’d care.

He spoke again, “Now he can’t play football. It’s the one good thing in his life right now. We’re just trying to get through. If I knew, then I would have helped Ryan get his work completed. I just didn’t know.”

My stomach twisted, knowing the mistake I made was because of my own misjudgment. “I’m sorry,” I said. Then I gave him the work which Ryan brought to school complete the following day. I went to the principal and admitted my mistake, showing Ryan’s current grade now that the work was turned in. I wrote a letter, asking for Ryan to be allowed to return to the football team.

It’s a mistake I didn’t make again. We’re just trying to get through, Mr. Kennelly’s voice haunts me from time to time. Now, fifteen years later and a mother to four, I know what he meant.

Tonight I had a meeting with one of my kids’ teachers. She’s a first year teacher and, like every first year teacher, is making some mistakes. I’m on the other side of the table this time. I hope my eyes are kind.

For the entire meeting I can’t shake Ryan Kennelly from my mind.

I extend grace.

“Tomorrow is a new day,” I said. “Let’s just be glad we’re not brain surgeons. They don’t usually get a second chance.”

The new teacher smiles, even laughs a little. It’s going to be okay. This is education at its finest — learning and growing from our mistakes.

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  1. Ruth…
    I learned that lesson the hard way as well. Now that I am on the other side of the table, working with my daughters' teachers, I try to keep myself from becoming “that parent,” to be patient and understanding (especially since my oldest daughter's teachers are my colleagues). It's hard, though, sometimes, when it's your own kid.

  2. It is hard to put into words what this piece did for me when I read it this evening. I am reminded as a teacher, a mother, a daughter, a wife, to listen and ask questions and not assume. This is a lesson I especially needed today – so thank you on so many levels.

  3. This is a post I could have written; thus, it tears at my heartstrings this morning. Thank you for the reminder that what we say and do matters, every time, and that is we assume we know what happens outside of our experiences, we are fools.

  4. It's a brave post to share, Ruth. I don't remember exact words, but I was so “sure” of my advice to parents early in my career and realized when I had my own children how there were no “sure” answers much of the time. I hope lots and lots of people read your story. Thank you!

  5. Ruth, this post tugs at my heart. I'm going to share it with the staff at my school. I still remember being a young teacher and judging parents, wondering why they couldn't get their kids to do their homework or there was no follow through on things I asked of them. And I remember my own transformation as my children entered school and I was sitting on the other side of the table. My eyes were opened and I gained a new understanding my students and their parents. Teaching and parenting…neither is an easy job. Thank you so much for sharing this honest story.

  6. We have all had these tough lessons if we have been teaching for any length of time. I know now that kindness must come first. Your post reminds me to reach out to parents.
    This year I was struggling with the behavior of one of my students. I sent a behavior report to his regular teacher and told her I would call his mother if it happened again. Then I decided, no, I should call his mother this time. Turns out I got a hold of her in the hospital with her older son who had suffered a concussion. Once we were all informed, all of us from administrators down were kinder and he is doing well now. I'm glad I went with my gut to make the call.

  7. Thank you for sharing this important story, it made me feel better and also gave me a heads-up!

    From a second year teacher and mother of three teenage boys.