I spend 1500 minutes a week standing in a room with kids. That’s 25 solid hours of face-to-face time, just me and teenagers. I have for sixteen years now. About 1,200 kids have heard me talking about what I am supposed to—like Antigone and Shakespearean sonnets—and things I’m not really supposed to, things that aren’t on the lesson plans. So far this year, I’ve dealt with children of alcoholics; children who are coping with serious illnesses—their own, and those of family members; students who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and students who were at the really wrong place at the really wrong time; students who cut because they can’t stand the pain; students who think that their lives are over at sixteen because that last bad decision they made was, after all, a very, very bad decision.
And I make my God-honest best effort every single day to be there, to wholly listen, to hear their stories and to look into their eyes because teachers did that for me. Frances Dillard sat and listened to me, a fourteen year old who was lost and drowning. She sat for days, and then for years. Howard Fore made me laugh; he stood up for me and defended me, and he gave Colin and the rest of the class a lecture entitled “Yes, I CAN Have a Favorite Student and Rachel CAN be it,” a speech that I have also given in my classroom, verbatim, about students who merit extra attention and praise. Edith Johnson, Bill Leiss, Joe Haluski, Cyndi Dixon, Loutrell Harris, Coach Pike, Coach Ganas, and even Senora del Castillo were all a part of a long list of teachers who fed me as I walked, emotionally starving, through the halls of Waycross High.
It was only logical that I want to become them and to live professionally and emotionally in the best place I knew: school.
But what the legion of educators whom I so loved and admired didn’t warn me about was the heartbreak, hard and absolute, that surrounds teaching. A student arrives at 8:00 AM whose beloved grandmother died just five hours before. There is a matter-of-fact discussion among kids whose fathers did not want them. A kid writes an essay about the three outfits he owns. Monday mornings, kids come in hungry enough to eat Ritz Carmelized Onion Crackers by the fistfuls, then search my cabinets for more.
There were no warnings about visiting hospitals, standing at the bedside after your first student is in a wreck, then your second . . . writing letters to distant jails when your first student is imprisoned, then your second . . .
Because the thing about teaching is your students are yours forever, for both the good and the bad. Yes, you will get to go to their weddings. You will rub their pregnant bellies at Wal-Mart and exclaim over their bright-eyed children at church. You’ll see pictures of your former students standing with their eyes agleam in places like Russia and New York and Saudi Arabia. You will look into the eyes of students who are firemen, Marines, linemen, video producers, professional athletes, and web designers, and you will feel pride that you didn’t know was possible.
But there will be other times when you will click on a status on Facebook that begins, “Pray for _____________; it’s really bad,” and your heart will leave you. It will just go. You will message the people who know how bad things are. And you will wait for them to tell you about how the telephone pole fell while your student was standing on it, or the car split in half with your student inside, or your student’s baby was born impossibly small.
You will hear how a fire tore through your student’s mobile home, killing her five year old daughter. And there are no words for this. There is nothing to say to this. There is no way to go from the power was out and a candle was in the bathroom to a child is dead. How can those simple facts add up to total and utter destruction?
You will do the only thing you can, hold your twenty year-old daughter in your lap, sob into her hair. You will pray as you drive to pick up your other daughter, and holding her hand at the red light, you’ll look at the moon, the same moon that is shining on your student’s hospital bed, and pray some more. You will think about leaving this heart-breaking job.
Then, you will see two out-of-place teens walking through a bank parking lot. Out of habit, you will pull over, hollering out the window, “Are you mine?” and they will beam. Then one will chuckle, “Not yet!” with a sparkle in his eye.
As you drive off, your daughter will tell you, “They say the tall one is on drugs. He’s young, just really tall.”
And you will find yourself thinking about him, and his future, and the part you can play in it, however mighty or miserable it may be.
After all, you’re a teacher.