Courage looks different to everyone. It can even look different to you on one day that it does another day. Let me tell you what it looked like to me today.
Today was the last day of our trimester. Yesterday, one of my classes revised essays they wrote last week, so I took them home and graded them last night. When I returned them to the kids today, I also delivered the news that they were going to have to stand up in front of the class and read them. I heard the expected moans and groans, as well as the, "Do we have to?" questions. Yes, they had to.
There are several English standards that require the students to speak or present in front of their classmates. Luckily, our school also has a communications class that covers many of these standards, but I like to try and incorporate a little of it in English. It's hard for most kids to get up in front of their peers and do this, I know, but I chose today's essay because it wasn't a personal one. It was about a book they had all read, so the topic wouldn't be embarrassing for them to talk about in front of others, and they would gain some (a little) public speaking experience.
I called the kids up alphabetically and everyone participated good-naturedly. The ones who were sitting and listening actually sat and listened, being respectful and considerate in ways they often aren't when it's me up there. I was proud of them.
Then I came to a boy I'll just call "T." This boy is an odd mixture of personalities. He has a good sense of humor and will once in a while participate in discussions and read-alouds. He often has stories to share about his life, but he doesn't always do his homework. He's usually respectful. Today, though, when I called his name to read his essay, he said, "No. I'm not doing it."
I don't like to be told no.
I started to tell him he had to, that it would be insubordination if he refused, and then he started to sob. Not weep. Not tear up. He sobbed. Head down on his desk, he bawled in my classroom. My jaw hit the ground.
Another boy caught my eye and said, "This happens when he has to speak in front of the class."
I looked at T for a second or two, listening to him cry, and I said, "T, I want you to calm down and take a few breaths. I'm not going to make you do this, but I want you to think about something. Everyone in here is doing this and living through it. Everyone is being kind to each other. At some point, you're going to have to do this for school and if you don't, it will really hurt your grade. I want you to try and do it here, where no one will laugh and you can see that you can do it."
I didn't know if my words had any effect on him because his crying continued, but I hoped they had. I called the next name and three or four students took their turns. Time was running out on the class, and I noticed that T had stopped crying and was sitting up straight in his chair. He had his essay in his hand.
Before I called the next name on my list, I said, "T, are you thinking you want to try it?"
He said, "Yeah, I'm just gonna do it." The entire class clapped as he went to the front of the room.
T stood at the front of the room, read the first few words on his paper, and started crying again. Hard. He'd read a couple words, sob a little bit, wipe away his tears with his arms, and read a couple more, then cry, dab his tears, read a few more, and so on.
I told him very, very early in his attempt that he didn't have to do it. But I guess something inside him said he had to. Because he finished that essay. He sobbed all the way through it, but he finished it.
I had tears in my eyes as I watched him. I have tears in my eyes now as I type this. Several of my other students turned at various times to look at me as T struggled in front of them, their eyes as wide as mine felt, but I had no answers.
I had given him an out. He refused to take it.
When he finished, we all clapped vigorously for him. I was standing, and I'd wanted to hug him, but that never felt quite right in that moment, so I just stood where I was and clapped really hard and really long.
When the clapping died down, I said, "T, that's the bravest thing I've ever seen a student do."
I'll never forget it.