Jamel looked like any typical 4th grader walking into my room on the first day of school, yet right away, he became a concern on my radar. Guarded with quiet, he spent the first weeks in our 4th-grade classroom watchful and barely speaking. Like a frightened bird perched always on the edge of the group, he listened but chose to only speak on the rarest of occasions. Vocal and needy students were usually the focus of my teaching energies, so Jamel presented different worries. Two whispers away from the label of selective mutism, there was something about this child that encouraged me to remain patiently watchful. I looked forward to the moment when Jamel would finally feel safe enough to open up and initiate a conversation.
As the first weeks unfolded, Jamel settle into our community. His gentle head nods, quiet smiles, and rare giggles were easy to miss in a busy classroom. Interestingly enough, his silence did not seem to bother his classmates. They still chose him to be a reading or writing buddy even if his raspy whispers were difficult to understand. Kids invited Jamel to play on the playground because he loved to shoot hoops and showed great effort on the Cherry Bomb court. He always joined a group at the lunch table and he seemed to be content to watch and listen to his classmates, while he quietly devoured his lunch.
What kept Jamel from speaking? Phone calls home unanswered and many emails never returned kept me second guessing the whys behind his silence. Without the necessary background information, worries haunted my opinion of Jamel. After weeks of thinking about the whys behind Jamel’s silence and only focusing on the ways he differed from his classmates, it finally dawned on me that I needed a new perspective. I needed to focus on the times he appeared to be quietly confident. With an intentional shift, I realized Jamel was most comfortable during these portions of our day:
- Arrival time: Jamel was often the first child in the room and he seemed to enjoy the first 10 minutes of the day with me and just a few other children. (Frequent smiles)
- Independent Reading: The quietness of independent reading time allowed Jamel to relax and I often observed him curled up on a beanbag chair or in one of our cozy book-nooks. (Quiet Contentment)
- Mini-Lessons: The short, but calm gatherings of a mini-lesson brought Jamel into the group and after a few weeks, he moved from the periphery and would sit near me during lessons. (Progress!)
- Writing Workshop: During writing workshop, Jamel often sat with me in my Writers’ Circle, a place in the community area for conferences even if I was not meeting with him. Sitting together gave me opportunities to ask questions or comment on his writing and this seemed to slowly build a comfortable connection between us. (Increased interactions)
- Read Aloud: Jamel was usually one of the first to arrive and joined the group for our shared books during read-aloud time. (Connections)
- Recess: Jamel seemed happy in the wide-open spaces of the playground to be alone or to play games with others. (Space and choices)
In a world of busy, it made sense that this child needed calm moments when he could relax and connect with peers as he settled into our classroom environment. I capitalized on these quieter moments as opportunities to build safer and stronger connections with Jamel by initiating conversations with him. I drew him into group conversations with other classmates. Each day seemed to hold more possibilities for Jamel. Even though it was difficult not to be concerned, I believed that if I continued to be patient, something would and could happen and Jamel would start talking, asking questions, and sharing his thinking.
Patience paid off.
I will always vividly remember the 34th day of school when I learned the most revealing and powerful information about Jamel. He arrived earlier than usual; rather than asking him to explain why he’d been dropped off 20 minutes before the first bell, I encouraged him to settle in and either read or explore the room as I prepared a few more things for our day. Secretly watching him out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something that I must have missed during bustling school days. I noticed Jamel was drawn to the many plants growing in our room.
With quiet steps, he circulated, checking on each of the plants. He gently touched the soil in the pots. Sometimes he softly traced the shape of a leaf. His long fingers moved over the leaves as if receiving messages from the green life around our room.
“You have 25 plants….” he announced with a soft voice that was finally louder than a whisper.
Jamel finally initiated a conversation with me. I slowly drew in a careful breath trying not to erupt into joyous chatter. So I nodded. I watched him gently remove a brown leaf from one plant and walking toward me with outstretched hands, he presented the leaf like an offering.
“I like these plants,” he spoke. His voice was raspy, but I could hear each word.
“I do too,” I responded, taking the brown leaf from his smooth fingers. Looking at him, I felt like this was a pivotal moment.
“The plants need your help. Can I show you how to care for our plants? I asked. “Would you like to be our gardener?”
“Yes,” he said with his full, raspy voice and his biggest smile yet.
And so I found my way into Jamel’s quiet world.
We talked about watering and the different amounts of water required by each kind of plant. He suggested that we put a code on the containers so he could remember which plants needed to be kept moist and which ones needed drier soil.
We talked about how brown or yellow leaves should be removed from plants so the plant would stop sending energy to fading leaves and direct energy to the living parts of the plant. “The brown leaves are kinda like the hairs mammals shed…getting rid of old hair to make room for new hair,” he commented.
We talked about rotating pots and even locations so plants had changing relationships to the limited sunlight coming from our two small windows. He asked if we could get some lights to make our own sunshine.
We talked about the plants that were growing too large for their current containers and would need to be repotted soon. And I could not help but smile as I saw Jamel already outgrowing my first impressions of him.
This green connection started to influence Jamel’s reading and writing life. He began a plant journal after I surprised him with 2 Amaryllis bulbs in November. His independent writing choices revolved around watching and waiting for the Amaryllis to grow and bloom. He started reading about all kinds of plants during reading workshop. One day I showed him a page with different bulbs to force during the winter months and he asked for daffodils…so he could make a bouquet for the secretaries. With grounded comfort and connections with plants, Jamel started to find his voice.
The miraculous thing was the other students noticed his interests and they reached out with comments, questions, and celebrations. Was Jamel transforming into a loud extrovert? No…and he probably never would be a talkative, outgoing person. His classmates now had a better chance to know him and understand his gentle nature; through the quiet world of plants, he was better understood and he drew more people into his quiet circle. As he answered his peers’ questions about the plants, his confidence grew and Jamel started to initiate conversations.
Behind the quiet, I learned that Jamel just needed his own unique way to belong to our community. In another time and place, Jamel would have been noticed by the town’s healer or shaman, a person also in tune with the quiet of nature. Jamel’s stillness would have been recognized as an asset in finding healing and hope within the green world. In our busy world that often forgets our need for quiet and connections to nature, Jamel reminded me that listening and observing are powerful tools. I will always be grateful for that unexpected morning when our classroom plants helped us connect with Jamel’s quiet world. Behind the quiet, we cared enough to notice how Jamel was a valued member of our community on his own terms.