Twenty-five years ago, I was in my first year of teaching special education at an elementary school in Reston. I was very inexperienced, and a fourth-grader named Bernardo unintentionally became my "professor."

Bernardo spoke in short, simple sentences and lacked certain social skills. One day, smiling airily, he peppered me with questions:

"Mr. S., do you eat a lot of food?"

"Mr. S., where do you live?"

This kid is teasing me, I thought. Two can play this game.

"Right here in this classroom, Bernardo."

The smile vanished.

"But where do you sleep?"

"On this table. After school I just lie down on it." I gave him a big wink. "Now let's do some math."

The next morning Bernardo gave me a little homemade pillow.

"So you don't have to rest your head on this hard table," he explained. He said he and his family had been homeless until recently, and he wanted me, a homeless teacher, to be comfortable.

That's how I came to understand the importance of the words a teacher uses, and how much they can be misunderstood by students. Bernardo felt much better after I told him I had a nice home. We even became lunch buddies for a while, before his family moved away. Today, he's probably about 35 years old. I hope he has a nice home, too.

Steven Semiatin, Germantown

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