Rumble

His Name Was Jody

His Name Was Jody

By Karma Valentine Shuford | From my earliest memories, I have wanted to be a teacher.  I remember “playing” school with my neighbor’s granddaughter, Julie. I remember my older sister using a chalkboard to show me new words. I remember waiting anxiously for the year when I could go to school. And I’ve been in school ever since.

Good fortune has reigned in my life and I have had a steady stream of teachers who have encouraged me, motivated me and modeled good teaching practices for me. Mrs. Teague, Mrs. King, Mr. Weissert, Mr. Patterson, Mrs. Walsh, and many, many more. 

Years later, I became a brand new teacher, and I set out on my journey to be the best teacher I could be, modeling myself after those wonderful teachers I had experienced.  Though I just knew I was destined to be a world class band director, I found myself in a very rural, very mountainous county teaching elementary music as an itinerant music teacher at five different schools. It wasn't a marching band. It was a lot of singing (not one of my strong points). It was a lot of driving and a lot of different kids. It was NOT what I had planned to do with my life.

And I loved it.

I had all kinds of students — wealthy and poverty-stricken. Academically gifted and severely disabled. Unconsciously, I found myself drawn to the “trouble” students — the ones the regular teachers complained about. The ones that were discussed constantly at faculty meetings. The ones I was told to just try to keep under control because they would wreck my class. Don’t misunderstand, I LOVED all of my kids — one of them was even in my wedding. But, there were some special ones. There was one boy in particular.

He was Trouble. With a big ole capital T. He had major learning issues in elementary school and by the time he was in fourth grade (when I first met him), he had long since decided it was much better to be the BAD boy rather than the stupid boy. And he worked it. He spent so much time in trouble, none of his classmates could really notice his learning issues. 

I don’t remember how I got him to behave in my class, but we built a relationship early on. He trusted me and I worked hard to keep that trust. By fifth grade, I started working with him on his behaviors in other classes. At this point, I had NO behavioral issues with him. None. Nada. Zilch. Zero. In my class, he was a model student. It wasn’t that I was a super great teacher, or that his classroom teacher wasn’t, we had just built a relationship based on mutual trust and respect and he felt safe in my class.

One day, about the middle of his fifth-grade year, he was on a roll when he came in and did everything in his power to disrupt and ruin the class. And he had a lot of practice at it, so he succeeded. I was so frustrated, but even as a relatively inexperienced teacher, I recognized quickly that something else was going on. I had him stay after class. He knew I was not happy with him, and I asked him to explain himself. Across the room, he looked up at me with huge tears running down his face. And today, almost 25 years later, I still cry when I think of what he said to me.

“Mrs. Valentine. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. But, I can’t remember which of them dots is which notes, and if you call on me to play in front of everybody, or ask me a question, and I mess it up, then everybody is gonna know I’m stupid in music just like I am stupid in everything else.”

That one sentence has shaped how I teach; it became reason I teach.

That journey has taken me a long way. It took me to an alternative high school that was TOUGH.  These were generally young adults that had seen a lot and been through a lot.  They didn’t trust adults, and many for good reasons. They just wanted and needed someone who cared. They were wonderful kids, though, and I am still in touch with many of them — and have even taught some of their kids at my current job.

It took me to an adult education program where I worked with adults who needed to finally complete high school by getting their GED. It took me back to middle school, where I remain, loving the quirkiness and unpredictability (and energy, oh, the energy!)  that comes with those kids jumping from little kids to young adults.

On March 13, 2020, I stood in front of a class of young people that were in eighth grade and this was my third year teaching them because I had “looped” up with them each year. As a result, we were close and I was excited about helping them to finish their final year of middle school. I told them there was a chance schools could be closed for a few days. I gave them each a notebook and explained how I would be in contact with them. I did not know that was the last time I would see them in that class. Or even at that school. 

One week later, I shifted everything I knew about teaching and became a brand new teacher. No classroom. No paper. No pencils to sharpen. No spontaneous classroom discussions. It was one of the most stressful, difficult things I have ever tried to do. But, we persevered. When school began the next August, little had changed, but everything was constantly changing. Each day was a new challenge — something totally unexpected, and unplanned for, popping up. One day near the end of September, I was sitting at my desk, once again near tears, wondering WHY I put myself through this, and feeling that teaching was starting to feel like playing whack-a-mole, I was seriously questioning some of my life decisions. 

 I had lost my “why.”

Remember the little “I’d rather be bad than stupid” boy?  For years, I would try to find out what happened to him when I left that system. Did he make it through middle school or high school? Did he get a career? A family? Was there another teacher who stood in his corner and encouraged him? I could never find anything out. Sitting there, near despairing at my situation, I googled his name, and a result from his town popped up.

I was so excited, until I saw the web address.

It was his obituary. 

The memories I had long forgotten came flooding back. The middle aged man in the picture disappeared and I saw his big brown, tear-filled eyes begging me to not dismiss him like everyone else had.  My purpose, my WHY, stared at me from the screen. That little boy that had pushed me to become a better teacher begged me to not forget him and to remember why I do what I do, even when I want to quit doing it. That little boy reminded me that one teacher cannot reach every kid; it takes all of us (parents, community, everyone) working together. That little boy reminded me that like all of my special teachers, three of whom had passed in just the past year, I have been divinely positioned to be that teacher to some kid, somewhere. It reminded me that where I used to want to be a teacher affecting children’s lives for the better, NOW, I am in that position, as difficult as it was becoming.

I am not the best teacher in my system. I am not the best teacher at my school. Sometimes, I am not even the best teacher in my classroom. But, I am called to be the best teacher that I can be. That little boy reminded me of that. That little boy was my “why.”

His name was Jody.

Shuford is a middle school teacher in Haywood County. 

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