Six years ago, in the dark depths of December, when everyone—students and teachers alike—was desperately counting down the days until Winter Break, I got an email from one of my freshmen students. The email was sent at 11pm on a Tuesday night. We were in the middle of our unit on To Kill a Mockingbird, and the students had been assigned to read the chapters in which our mockingbird, Tom Robinson—a black man wrongfully convicted of the rape of a white woman—is shot and killed. In desperation, in a wild fit of hopelessness, he tries to flee prison and is killed, shot in the back 17 times. My student, enraged at the unfairness of it all, fired off an email ranting about the book, about injustice, about her absolute disgust at the unfairness of it all. In her 14 year old vernacular, she angrily accused me of lying—I told her that, in general, Mockingbird had a happy ending—and the world of being unfair.
See, when I tell people that I teach high school English, I get one of two responses: “Oh my god, I hated English” or “Oh my god, I hate teenagers.” And the truth is, I don’t really understand either perspective.
There are days--months, even occasionally entire years--where I know I'm less effective than I'd like to be as a teacher. I know I've let students down. I know I have students I never connected with meaningfully. I know I have many students who may have done better if I had been better. But I love my job. And today as I circulated my classroom during my sixth hour AP Lit class, feeling worn down and exhausted (it’s just been that kind of week), I was suddenly reminded forcefully of how very much I love not just my job, but my kids. I was powerfully aware of how lucky I am to do what I do, to have these people in my heart for the short time I get to know them. And it made me think back on the handful of moments that really define my ten years of teaching. There are beautiful moments in everyday, but the moments blend—to be honest, the faces and names start to get muddy. But there are some moments that even distance can’t cloud.
Sitting in semifinals at the National Speech and Debate Tournament, watching my student—watching a piece of my heart—give an impassioned speech with more talent, grace, and humor than she ever thought possible. Sitting in a desk watching a student practice her invisibility speech for AP Lit, listening to her say the words “I’m gay” out loud for the first time, honored because she trusted me enough to say them to me. Watching with trepidation as a student opened the email that told him he’d been accepted to his dream college, hugging him, proud but not surprised. Feeling the tears in my eyes when a student, walking off the stage after finding out she had qualified for the MSHSL state tournament, collapsed into me, crying and laughing at the same time. Hiding my surprise when, finally at the end of May, a student who had never voluntarily spoken in class cautiously raised his hand to explain why he thought Piggy's classes were so important in Lord of the Flies. Nodding helplessly as a student, heartbroken, told me his mom wouldn't say she loved him when he told her she was gay. Fighting tears in a quiet moment with a senior after State Finals, celebrating the end of a successful career, saying goodbye to an activity he loved, trying to put every overwhelming emotion we had into a hug in the middle of a crowded hallway.
And of course, an angry email from a beautiful soul who just so badly wanted the world to be fair.
These are moments that are forever in my heart. Many of them--maybe most of them--are moments my students quickly forget. Their lives march on, carrying them outside of the walls of their old high school. They head out into the world and talk about how awful high school was, how glad they are to be gone, how small minded their hometown is. Meanwhile, I carry them with me in my heart everyday, fundamentally changed for having known them. I'll remember moments with them long after Hamlet or A Tale of Two Cities fade from their memories. They'll haunt my classroom years past the point where their high school English teacher or Speech coach crosses their mind. It's the nature of teaching--a constant push and pull between remembering and forgetting. They'll move on and forget about me and my classroom. New students will take up their places, settling into their old desks with no knowledge of the people who sat there before, claiming their space. Filling my heart.
And the cycle repeats.
I love my job because I love these people--these difficult, loud, moody people who fill my room for seven hours a day. Some days I am overwhelmed by how lucky I am, how profoundly special it is to be a part of these lives, whether for a semester, a year, or a high school career. How honored I am that a few students allow me in enough to send me emails, snaps, tweets, and texts long after they’ve left my room for the last time. Some days—more often than I would like—I’m disappointed in myself, for not doing more or being more for the amazing young people who walk through my doors. Some days I’m disappointed with my students—for not valuing their opportunities, for not wanting to work or grow or be the people I know they can be. But disappointment is a part of caring, so I’ll take it. There is far more pride and that’s what I’ll hold on to.
So some people can’t understand why I teach. They can’t understand why I would love these hormonal, whiny, beautiful people who fill my desks. Usually I just laugh it off. Usually I make some sarcastic comment and move on.
But next time… maybe next time I’ll tell them about this email I got once, about six years ago…