Want a better reason to teach? A best one? Go ask three people who their favorite teacher in school was. Watch their eyes and listen to the way they talk about that teacher. You get to be that. Not for everyone, or even most kids, sure…but how many people do you need to touch in that way for it to be worth it? I have my number, and it is low.
People come up to me sometimes, and they have run into a former student, or the parent of a former student, and I am brought up, and I am told wonderful things those students say about me, about my teaching, about what those students are doing now because of, in part, things they heard or did in my classroom. I’ve never once driven past a house I painted 10 years ago just to see how it’s doing.
Once I had a mom tell me that her daughter was alive at the end of a year because of me. A week later and unknowing of the previous conversation, the girl said the same thing. My being around at just the right time and not being an ass meant she was still alive…just a job?
In fact, let’s talk about her, because she saved me, too. I wasn’t going to die or anything, but I was getting pretty damn close for the 10th time in my career to finding something else to do. I was in my first year in high school after half a thousand years teaching middle school with the three best teachers I’ve ever met. I remember looking around staff meetings at the new school and thinking, “Yeah, I don’t like any of these people.”
They were good teachers, mind you, but I didn’t like them, because I didn’t like much of anything. Of course, those were adults, and I didn’t get into teaching because I love sitting around in rooms of adults talking about talking. There’s always the kids, right?
In the second week of school, someone went into my desk and stole my phone. I gave an ill-planned, overly emotional speech to the class about the bond of trust we would need to form in order to blahblahblah. I was mocked. I was not a little mocked. I was severely, loudly mocked. I didn’t get my phone back. But I did receive the delightful explanation that “no one cares about your shit.” Indeed.
So it was when I was in my most defeated, my crankiest, my most screw-this-job-iest when a student came to me and said, “Do you have a minute?” It should be noted that being all those things probably also meant enough of my own walls were down that I didn’t look like the strutting blowhard I can often come across as. So I had a minute.
“I have to let you know, though,” I’d seen the look in her face before, and this was not going to be a conversation about easy things, “I have a degree in English lit, and a degree in English education.”
“So I’m just saying, I know a decent amount about books and writing and stuff, but I have no idea how to talk to people about anything other than books and stuff.”
“Yeah, I have a therapist for that.”
“Great, then I won’t be your therapist. I’ll be your English teacher.”
“Do you want a granola bar? In addition to knowing a little bit about books and stuff, I also have granola bars.”
That’s how it started. She sat and talked to me for about 30 minutes. She told me about things that I won’t share here, even in anonymity, because they’re her things. I said a lot of things like, “That’s awful,” “No, it’s not fair,” and “No, I have no idea what that’s like.” Mainly, I just listened. I stared at my shoe and she stared out the window, and during every other prolonged silence, I offered her a granola bar.
Later, I would figure out that it’s helpful to throw down a big piece of paper and a bunch of crayons and sit and straight-up color with nearly-grown-people in the event they wanted to come talk about their feelings. I am really, really (I promise, really) crappy at problems that don’t involve books. I’m not even that good at grammar stuff.
It turns out that she liked that I didn’t try to fix it, and I didn’t try to tell her everything was going to be okay, and I didn’t treat her like it was my job to listen to her. She’d had poor experiences with all those things talking to the people whose job it really was to listen to her.
So my room became a safe place for her to go when she needed to go somewhere, and often she didn’t even talk to me while she was there. She would sit in a corner and draw, and I wouldn’t give her grief about it, and I wouldn’t try to sit and talk about feelings unless she wanted to, and then I mainly stared at my shoes some more. I introduced her to as many people in the building as I could who could be helpful, and they were. I stayed in touch with her parents, and we got through the thing as a team of people trying to get through the thing.
One time, she came up to me in the hallway and told me to hold my hand out. I held my hand out, and she dropped three shards of a razor into it.
“Did you use this?”
“Why did you give it to me?”
“I can’t throw it away, but you should.”
Just a job, though, right?
This girl, by the way, is going to change the world. She’ll save more people than I will ever know. She’ll be your hero someday. If 10 bad life decisions of mine and a couple of good ones led to me teaching in that school at the moment I needed to be there to help her by being a person, good. Screw everything else, it’s totally worth it. It is beyond worth it. It is a privilege.