One of the most pivotal moments of my illustrious teaching career (I say this sarcastically because I’ve been teaching for approximately fifteen minutes) occurred on accident. A coworker of mine, still unbeknownst to me who it was, left an article in my mailbox on one of my first mornings as a teacher. This short piece of writing shook me. Not enough to save it, as I believe it made its way into a recycling bin and not my filing cabinet, but enough to drastically alter my lesson plans for a day. As a teacher, making deliberate changes to plans rarely happen because so many unplanned alterations unfold regardless of careful, thoughtful lists on how the day is supposed to transpire.
Through careful prose, this teacher/author/miracle worker explained to readers that she had once asked her students to anonymously write down an answer to the following statement: “I wish my teacher knew that…”
Woah. Inviting students to open up about anything? Do I trust them enough to take this activity seriously? I decided to take a chance on this article, the students, and myself. I pushed aside everything else, and hastily pulled together some resources for the students to partake in this activity.
The responses I received were more than worth the spontaneous effort I had put into pulling such an idea off. After only a few short days of knowing these individuals, many of them poured their hearts and souls into this sheet of paper, this simple task, this profound opportunity. While I don’t intend to disclose any of their personal, anonymous responses, some can be summarized as follows: I feel like I don’t fit in; I’m having family problems at home; I’m embarrassed that I’m not a very good reader; I don’t see the purpose of school; I’ve never felt connected to a teacher; I have no self esteem; No teacher has ever asked me to share personal stuff with them; I feel so alone.
While I will never know which students wrote which heart-wrenching sentence, I find that perfect. Perfectly imperfect and completely incomplete- a paradox similar to the essence of humanity. I love not knowing which student feels alone and which doesn’t want to read aloud. Equality has never felt so good. I’m encouraged to treat each student equally because I will never know which student carries which burden. I love my job. Teaching is so much more than educating a child about a certain topic and helping develop lifelong learning strategies. My favorite part of my job has nothing to do with English at all (and ask any of my friends… I’m obsessed with the English language. I just bought myself a semicolon ring because I like grammar so much. Seriously, people, semicolons are the coolest and most powerful tools in grammar.). I cherish the simple moments in my classroom: watching students who wouldn’t normally spend time together working feverishly to win our flyswatter vocabulary games, or hearing a student comfort a dejected acquaintance in the halls that everything will be okay. I work with sweet, kind, angry, emotional, prepubescent, mini-adults. It’s the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done in my life, but even despite my new electric blanket I still love getting out of bed and going to work. I have no idea which student carries which sentence, but I know they’re all carrying something.
Please remember that we’re all carrying some kind of encumbrance. I read an excellent novel, The Things They Carried, just a few months ago while still in college. Having read countless novels since then, been exposed to thousands of pages of words since Tim O’Brien’s tale, I still find myself reflecting on it. There are two quotes from it that I would like to leave you with, both involving stories and burdens- something each of us have.
The first is a happy thought. Stories shape us, thread us together, tear down walls. O’Brien articulates this phenomenon much more clearly than I ever could, and I adore hearing the stories of my students: “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness” (112). My students, your children, our community members, these mini-adults come alive through their anecdotes, and I want to dream with them.
The second, less joyful, is more raw. O’Brien’s words align with the graphite scratches on the papers I handed out during this activity, perhaps smudged with the moisture of salty tears or sweaty palms, putting into words a burden so suppressed that acknowledging it may cause one to break. He explains (and seemingly so, on behalf of our young people), “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried” (189). I’m amazed at what some of these kids are battling. And yes, I use the word battling intentionally. While O’Brien writes of his experience immersed in a war, I, too, feel that these kids are fighting in their own versions of war. Their ability to endure deserves respect and adults who care to help them thrive in spite of it all. I’m honored that they let me in so unabashedly, and I’m happy to be in the trenches fighting for them.