Dad Next Door: Superheroes in the classrooms
Jeff Lee, "Dad Next Door" columnist.
When I was a kid, we used to take beach towels and tie them around our necks as superhero capes. Then we’d jump around on the furniture pretending to fly. It’s a wonder we didn’t end up catching them on something and hanging ourselves.
When we got older, we played the superpower game. If we could have any superpower, what would it be? Kangaroo legs, so we could dunk a basketball. Freeze ray so we could aim it at clouds and produce instant snow days. Or maybe X-ray vision so we could… well, you know. Hey, what did you expect? We were middle-school boys.
Once I reached adulthood, my superpower aspirations took a more practical turn. Traffic-jam parting. Infant sleep induction. Daughter’s boyfriend elimination. But for all my years of superpower musings and yearnings, I was unprepared for my first encounter with a real live superhero. And I was even more amazed to find her standing in front of my daughter’s classroom when I came in to volunteer. She was my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher, Tricia Lewicki.
There’s a long tradition of misunderstood superheroes, drawn into service by a combination of happenstance and their own reluctant valor. Often, they spend their days hidden behind an alter ego that lets them walk among us undetected. So it was with Trish. She wore no cape, no mask, no multicolored tights. She looked, for all the world, like a modest Midwestern girl next door. All the better to hide her awesome powers.
I had volunteered in my daughter’s classrooms before, and had seen her classmates up close and personal. Hers was not an easy group. Don’t get me wrong — they were great kids, but they presented major challenges to any teacher. At least three of them had full-blown ADHD, and another had an oppositional disorder. A third of the kids spoke English as a second language. Some had parents who worked two jobs and had no time to support schoolwork at home. Others had uptight professional parents who expected 24/7 access via email and cell phone. I had seen several teachers take on this group, with varied results. I was curious to see how this would go.
The school year was still young at that point. There had only been a few weeks to establish a rhythm and a sense of order. As I walked down the hallways, I glanced into a number of classrooms in various stages of chaos and madness. But as I approached my daughter’s room, there was an eerie calm. Inside, Trish had the kids gathered around her on the carpet. She was reading them a story, and to most observers it would have seemed as if nothing else was happening. But that’s the point.
The ADHD kids were sitting still and listening. The kids who struggled with English were totally engaged. The entitled smart-ass kids weren’t chattering or interrupting. Everyone was focused on Trish, and nothing else.
At first, I thought it was a trick. Maybe she was slipping sedatives into their snacks. Maybe she had hypnotized them into submission. Maybe she had replaced our children with alien pod people, and was preparing them to take over the world. But the longer I watched, the more I noticed the hundreds of tiny things she did to keep their attention. A glance here. A pause there. A gentle touch on the sleeve of a fidgety kid (strategically seated in the front row). She was like the conductor of a large orchestra — connected to everyone in the room by a tiny, invisible thread.
As the year continued, it became clear that this was no fluke. I saw kids making enormous gains. I saw the class coalesce into a community. I saw them learn and grow and engage in ways I hadn’t thought possible. When our younger daughter reached fourth grade, we moved heaven and earth to make sure she was placed in Trish’s class (yes, we were in the uptight professional parent camp). When she got in, we felt as if we had won the lottery.
A few months ago, the Seattle Times did a short interview with Tricia. She talked about her love of teaching, and of her school and her students. She talked about the passion that still burned in her to do the work. But then, to my horror, she said that she was considering leaving teaching and doing something else. She said that the cumulative effect of working in a field that was chronically under-resourced and increasingly disrespected had taken its toll. When I read that, I was close to tears.
Why is it that we never appreciate our superheroes until they are gone? Why is Spider-Man hounded like a criminal? Why is the Hulk vilified and misunderstood? Why is Batman driven into hiding by the very people who depend on him for their future and their well-being?
Tricia, if you’re out there, please let this be your Bat Beacon. We are a foolish people, blinded by our own smallness and selfishness. Without you, we will descend into ignorance and chaos.
Come back to Gotham City. We don’t deserve you, but we desperately need you.
Jeff Lee, who lives in Seattle, denies rumors that he is actually Captain Underpants.