Friends’ Gate

I had heard so many negative things concerning a new student prior to his enrollment that I chose not to review his records when they arrived. I felt that because he did not have to sift through my old baggage, perhaps I should not sift through his. I decided we would begin on unbiased, neutral grounds. I did choose, however, to read his medical and family background.

Jonathan was born in 1980 in Houston. After his mother abandoned him, his maternal grandmother and great-aunt raised him. Just before his eighth birthday, both women passed away and he returned to his mother. Without time to grieve his losses, Jonathan was introduced to his mother for the first time. In her absence, she had married a man with four children and given birth to four of her own. She basically announced, “I am your mother, this is your stepfather, and these are your eight brothers and sisters. We have arranged for you to be bused to another school beginning tomorrow. You will share a bedroom with your four stepbrothers.”

During that school year, Jonathan had four teachers, no friends, and was labeled emotionally disturbed. This label qualified him for the program I was teaching at the time. Jonathan was unkempt in appearance, which didn’t seem to bother him, nor did it bother me. What did bother me was that he was extremely withdrawn, completely isolated. He had put himself into a bubble that no one was going to pop . . . except me.

One day I asked my students to select something to photograph with an instant camera. Once handed the camera, Jonathan burst through the classroom door and took the most direct route available to the bicycle rack. He took a photograph of the bicycle rack from the outside looking through the fence. Without saying a word, I reached in front of Jonathan, removed his photograph from the camera, and walked back to the classroom. I explained he must first draw and color his photograph before I allowed him to see it.

He drew a wonderful picture with colorful, imaginative simplicity, a yellow fence with a red bicycle behind it. I then asked him to title his new masterpiece. Without hesitation, Jonathan wrote “Friends’ Gate” across the bottom of his drawing. The peculiarity of his title struck me. “Your photograph turned out perfect, Jonathan!” I began. “And your picture is every bit as nice, but I’m really excited about your title. Would you tell me something about it?” His response was a mere shrug of the shoulders. “You came up with a fabulous title without even taking the time to think it over. What does ‘Friends’ Gate’ mean to you? I mean, why not ‘Bike Rack’ or ‘Jonathan’s Picture’? Why ‘Friends’ Gate’?” The second shrug of his shoulders told me that the interpretation of his title was personal to Jonathan. He realized I was suddenly penetrating his bubble and quickly pulled away.

Monday morning of the next week, I made my the routine safety rounds of the school (I was the supervisor of the Safety Patrol program). On that particular morning, I was greeted by two overexcited student patrols who were upset with Jonathan. It seemed he was not complying with the school rule of retreating to the playground after getting off the bus. He was standing at the front corner of the building staring at the bike rack each day. I assured the patrols that I would personally attend to it. I felt the best approach would be for me to find somewhere that I could stare at the bicycle rack for a few days so I could assess Jonathan’s fascination.

At the bicycle rack, each day I witnessed the same group of children proudly wheeling their bicycles through the gate, their door to friendship. Once inside the gate, the students would assume a casual slouch against the fence or sit sidesaddle on their bicycle seats and engage in action-packed conversations with one another. The only students allowed inside the bicycle rack were those who rode bicycles to school. This, of course, added to the mystique of the clique.

It seemed clear to me what my next move should be. That evening, I searched for a used bicycle from a neighborhood teacher supply store (garage sale). The following morning, I remarked to Jonathan about the carelessness of a student who had left his bicycle at the side of the building and asked him to make sure the bicycle found its way to the bicycle rack. This particular bicycle, however, had the annoying, recurring habit of showing up each morning, so I had to enlist Jonathan’s assistance each day. After three days, he casually exchanged conversation with the bicycle clique. Although Jonathan eventually uncovered my scheme, it seemed practical for him to become the newly appointed, supervising safety patrol of the school bicycle rack. I am pleased to report that Jonathan brought his new attitude into the classroom and began participating and socializing. He even started to do normal, silly things, like poking kids in line and throwing the occasional crust of bread across the cafeteria.

To Jonathan, inside “Friends’ Gate” was a feeling of belonging. For the first time since the passing of his beloved grandmother and great-aunt, Jonathan felt like he could be a part of something once again. Two months later, Jonathan’s family relocated and I never saw him again. I will never forget my experiences with Jonathan. I took the opportunity to learn from him, and I am grateful for that. I can only hope to be as good a teacher as Jonathan was.

- Tim Gangwer

(An excerpt from "Visual Impact Visual Teaching" © 2009 Corwin Press)

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Comment by Sandra Abbott on June 29, 2009 at 1:27pm
Great story. Thanks for sharing.

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