Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Ode to My Students
I have been touched by your kids... and I'm pretty sure that I've touched them.
-Dewey Finn, School of Rock
You know how you read online these warm and touching stories about teachers? Well, I have never google searched it, but I don't often read heart-warming stories about how students have impacted the life of a teacher even though I believe it happens just as often, if not more.
I have blogged about what I learned from some of my students before (my journey learning about race) and you often hear about how a student, particularly a struggling student shames a teacher into repentance. Has anyone read the story that circulates about Teddy and how he gave his teacher some perfume that she thought was trashy until she found out his mother died? I hate that story and I think most educators should if they think it is okay to take delight in failing students until you find out they have a deceased parent, are you serious people?
Well I am here to confess that I didn't go into teaching to inspire people, I went into teaching because I was moved by the young people I taught myself.
In another blog post (Paragraph 6) I wrote about my beginning teaching experience in LA Unified. I often describe that time as like one of those movies (Dangerous Minds or Lean on Me) but without the inspiring teacher part.
I could write a novel on students that I taught in Delhi and how much I loved them as individuals and that I still remember my first experience when someone cheated on a test and I was shocked into reality that it wasn't a violation of the ed code. Or how a student told me that he already made more money than me as a 15-year old drug dealer. Or showing up at the house of three punk kids I loved because they stayed home from my boring summer school class in favor of playing video games. Or how I became so close with some of the students there that it nearly broke my heart to leave the school when we moved.
But today I want to write about Stacee. See that picture at the top? The centerpiece to that picture with the white shirt and long hair? Stacee died this last weekend. It was a jolt to me, to lose a young person--as a teacher, you are supposed to die before your students, all of them. I sometimes live in fear--when I get a request on facebook from a name that is only vaguely familiar, am I forgetting my students? Is this person someone who I really should know by name and face? Will I forget the things that they taught me and the things that they said, and lose a piece of myself?
But when Stacee died, a sudden burst of memories came to me, a reminder of what a beautiful young lady she was, the times she made fun of me or her peers, the times she stunned me with her raw artistic talent, the times she scared me with how deeply she felt things. I remembered my mistakes, I remembered her mistakes, and surprisingly, I remembered with perfect clarity being inspired by her on the first day of orientation:
We were standing in a group in the front of the room, a group of excited teachers introducing ourselves for the first time to parents and students in a pioneering school. When the teachers came to stand up front, there was an audible murmuring about how young these teachers were. And we were! Tim, Kristen, Kris, Senna, Robin, Matt, Andy... we were all in the first 3 years of teaching, on the mature end of that spectrum. Lorna had a few years on us and then Proctor--we don't count him though (sorry, once you get busted for drug dealing to students you are out of the picture, yo). And while I had taught for a few years, I was still young. And as we were introduced and I looked out on this sea of parents, a little shy that we didn't know what the ayche we were doing, I saw Stacee and Nicole, these two cute girls who I had met before the presentation, and I knew that we were going to be awesome. I knew that these kids, especially the 10th graders, had left a secure and safe place in their previous school and pioneer or not, we had an obligation to do something for them. It wasn't a teacher who inspired me in that moment, it was students, who gave me the inner strength to do the hard work.
I don't know why this stands out to me--but it is false to say that teaching is a thankless job. It is fake to say that no one appreciates teachers. That is bullcrap or no one would do it. It is the most appreciated job on the planet. Every day I knew where I stood with my students, if they liked what I taught, if they learned in my classroom. I knew if I had completely bored them to death, if I had not provided a safe enough environment, if I had wasted their time, or if they genuinely loved what they had done in my classroom. I received gifts every holiday (once a group of students planned a surprise party for me during a particular class period), I received notes of appreciation, and was the recipient of random acts of kindness. Most of all I was inspired.
By students who already knew everything but refused to be lazy, kids who had a killer work ethic.
By kids who had a better sense of humor, a stronger moral compass, a more righteous sense of justice.
By kids who didn't understand what they were saying but fought about it anyway.
By kids who didn't undersand what I was saying but fought about it anyway.
By kids who saw right through everything and realized that the system was not going to be on their side but gave it a go anyway.
By students, like Stacee, who had more talent by age 16 than most people will experience in a lifetime.
I am saddened by her departure, devastated on behalf of her family, but grateful too, that I knew someone like her.
That she reminds me that so much of the inspiration that happens in the classroom is generated not from the teachers, but the students themselves.