Today was one of those days I felt so grateful that I've chosen this profession. Teaching is so much more than content. We also teach young people how to navigate difficult waters. We teach them empathy and kindness. We teach them how to handle missteps gracefully. We teach them the importance of reflection and apology and taking responsibility. We teach them agency -- they have powerful voices; they need to be thoughtful about how they use them. We teach them love and forgiveness and pride. Today was filled to the brim with those "soft" lessons.
In sophomore English, we're mired in an admittedly difficult unit. We're spending several weeks working on a unit associated with incarceration. I'll admit, I was incredibly resistant to it, but it's important to me to be a team player, so I acquiesced, albeit begrudgingly. I was reticent on a couple of fronts: 1. We have an overwhelming number of students who've been affected by incarceration and I worry it might be difficult for them and 2. It feels strange to spend several weeks on a seemingly random topic. However, I appreciate that it brings pertinent issues to the forefront. It challenges thinking. They have to learn to support a stance with more than emotion and passion, but with truth.
My student teacher, at the tender age of 21, has been leading this unit. She challenges them to think about difficult and polarizing topics and to do so respectfully. She's learned how to put out fires. She's learned how quickly teenage emotion flares. She's learned that passion can be divisive. She's learned how to read the room -- to follow the non-verbal cues and keep an eye out for the ones who are struggling. And today she learned a hard and powerful lesson.
A student in our class (a clown on the surface, but a deeply sensitive soul beneath it all) stormed out of class. The topic that set him off was the notion of white privilege. He felt under attack and he didn't think he could say anything -- everyone in the room would accuse him of being a racist. Walking out was all he felt he could do. I think now of that sweet boy -- 15, bruised, hurt, and defensive, armed with neither words to defend himself nor the perspective to see he is in fact very much privileged. And flight was the only defense he could muster. Because he was angry, but couldn't express it, and tears were threatening.
I could have let it settle itself, turned a blind eye. I didn't have to address it. But there were lessons to be learned. So I sought him out. I gave him the floor. I let him lead. I asked the question and let him respond: "Why don't you tell me about what happened in class?" And he pulled a typical teenage-boy-in-trouble: "Uh, what do you mean?" And I was patient and kind and asked him again, emphasizing that it was important to me that I understand what happened. I watched him vacillate between defensiveness and embarrassment. He felt wronged, but also knew I was disappointed, which pained him. He needed to be reminded that we're all human -- how lucky that we can experience both understanding and forgiveness? And finally, because he trusts me, he coughed out the truth: "She was saying things that weren't true. And I couldn't say anything. I couldn't say ANYTHING! Everyone would think I'm a racist! And I'm not! I didn't know what else to do..." Rock and a hard place, poor kid.
But I've been doing this awhile. I knew what he needed. First, he needed love and acceptance. I hugged him. His eyes welled with tears. It's a heavy load he's carrying. "I don't feel the same way you do," I told him, " but I did once and I appreciate your perspective. I would love to talk with you more about this. Thank you for telling the truth, for trusting me with it." Second, he needed acknowledgement. "I'm sorry you felt you couldn't use your voice when you felt attacked," I told him. Finally, he needed direction: "You're going to have to go talk to her. You have to take responsibility. You have to communicate. She cares about you. You matter to us." And he did. He did the hard thing. He apologized. He acknowledged his mistake. He shared his struggle. He learned that she's human. He revealed his humanness.
A few hours later, I taught AP Literature and Composition. We're reading August Wilson's Fences. So much of the meaning in the play hinges on our understanding of Troy, in all of his complexity. We opened with a journal, and I should mention that the "bro" quotient is high in that class. But still, I put it out there: Journal for the next five minutes on what it means to be a man -- personally, socially, culturally. And the bros were silent. They wrote. I called time and many were still scribbling. I asked them to talk with table partners. The conversation was interesting, authentic, profound, real. And then we analyzed Troy and the relationships he has with other characters. We concluded with a return to the original journal: After analyzing Troy and his relationships, how does your concept of what it means to be a man reinforce or differ from Troy's ideas of manhood? Again, silence and writing and thinking. And these young men went out into the world thinking about identity and belief systems and what kind of men they wanted to be. Powerful.
After school, the sophomore's mother called me. We talked. She cried. She was embarrassed for her son's actions, but protective. And I'm a mother, so I knew what she needed too. First, explanation. Second, reassurance. Finally, affirmation. So I began: here's what happened; he's a good kid and I love him; you're doing a good job, Mom. And she thanked me, immensely. And what a lesson it was that was reaffirmed for me -- the power of building relationships with families, not just the students we serve. Because we're all in this together.
Today was a teaching day. Yes, literature and skills were there, but the lessons gleaned today were life lessons. Powerful ones. The kind that make me want to show up day after day.