I estimate, over the past fourteen years or so, I’ve taught over three hundred students. They have ranged in age from five to eighteen, represent all races that I can conceive, and stick in my memory for good and bad reasons. I have reveled in their successes and helped them through hard times.
I have attended funerals and memorial services for them and their families. They have made me laugh and cry, tremble with rage and ache for their security. I can’t, for the life of me, remember all of their names or faces, and the years I knew them are starting to run together.
I do remember a few quite vividly, and I certainly remember Dat.
Dat was a student in my first fourth-grade class. He was half Chinese and half Korean and by far the smartest amongst his peers. I remember him for three reasons.
Once, on the bus heading to a field trip, another student was crying. His classmates began snickering, and before I could say anything, Dat spoke up and said, “Don’t laugh at Luis for crying.” As he said it, he stabbed them with his eyes and a hard thin line of lips. He said nothing else, but the laughter ceased quickly.
Compassion and empathy.
Whenever Dat took a test, he never sat down. He would stand and lean over his desk, scribbling furiously. When flummoxed, he would stand straight, tap a finger on his chin, look up at the ceiling, and pace. This contemplative exercise always succeeded. “A-ha!” he exclaimed as he bent over again and finished his response.
Dat always handed in his assessment last. I would walk over to him and whisper, “Dat, it’s time, my man.” He would hold a finger to my face, respectfully, finish his last thoughts, bow to the test, and say, “Mister…I have finished.”
With extreme reverence, I would place his test on top of the pile and nod solemnly. For some reason, I backed away, like a commoner leaving the court of a king.
I had an old brown wing-backed chair in my room. My parents were going to throw it away, and I snatched it. I made a banner for it that read: The Throne of Knowledge. Students could sit upon the throne if they earned it. They could show exceptional self-control when others were off task, or help a friend when they needed it, or for feats of intellectual daring.
On a hot day in May, I announced, “Boys and girls, today we will have a Math Bee. The winner will sit upon the Throne of Knowledge for the rest of the day.”
Dat leaped from his desk, shook his tiny fist in the air, and exclaimed, “The Throne is as good as mine!”
He stood there with a raging fire in his eyes and a face contorted in a manic frenzy. His classmates looked on wide-eyed, and a few laughed nervously, but it was Dat who sat upon the throne after slaying the Math Bee.
For the rest of the day, as students passed him to sharpen a pencil, he would ward them off with an outstretched arm, “Stay away from my kingdom!”
Faith in one’s self.
Compassion, honor, and faith.
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