Today in my third hour class, one of my students asked me if I was upset or angry. She said my eyes just looked a little red or something. I said I was totally fine, and I was. In fact, I was in a better-than-average mood today, and I’m usually in a decent mood anyway. What can I say? I like Thursdays. The truth is, however, that a student, with whom I am not particularly close but I could tell has been upset this week, confided a family problem to me.
Her problem is a big deal; it should not be treated lightly, but it is certainly not a tragic situation. It’s sad. It sounds as if a cold shoulder has been given where warmth and tenderness should abide, and change is around the corner for her. I don’t know why her revelation affected me so much. Perhaps it is because this girl likes to put forward a tough exterior, and she let me see a tender, vulnerable side and my heart responded. Perhaps because when I imagine myself in her position, my sadness would be just as profound as I’ve observed in her. Perhaps it is because I had my own family issues when I was her age. Whatever the reason, it effected me and my eyes, ever so slightly I guess, began to tear. I was barely aware of it, and I had already collected my thoughts and was ready to move on and begin class when the other student noticed something about my eyes
Man, do those students notice everything about their teachers! I think teachers need to be reminded sometimes that their students are watching them so very closely, and though I know some of them would be loathe to admit it, I think a healthy majority of them genuinely care about their teachers. I don’t think it is any coincidence that the same student who asked me about my eyes asked me a few moments later why I became a teacher. It’s not unlike being asked by your spouse or significant other, Why do you love me? I may be way off base here, but sometimes I think that is precisely what they are asking. There is something that they see in some of their teachers that makes them want to know a little more about who we are and why we’ve chosen to be there with them every day. And when you’re standing in front of a class of 16 and 17 year-olds, who want nothing much more than to have a purpose in life, and a good time in the process, you better have a good answer. At any rate, my answer is complex and difficult to articulate.
I like being with my students. I like the subject I teach. But mostly, I like them as people. I like their energy, I like their creativity, I like their sense of humor, and their ideas. I draw energy from them. I care about them and their lives, and their futures, and what they think. And seeing as how my family’s finances are such that I have to work, this is the only job that I can imagine being “worthy” of spending my days there rather than staying with my own children. One student asked, “But don’t you get sick of seeing the same kids every day?” After a moment’s thought, I replied, “No, that’s kind of what I like about my job. That even after a bad day, I can wake up the next morning and see it as a new and completely different day… even if I am going back to the same people.” Of course, it helps that I come into contact with a 130 different students a day, rather than being in a single room with the same 25-30 all day.
But if I had had more time to think about it, I would have also told them that in addition to liking them as people, I want them to have hope in this world. I want them to feel empowered and enabled. I want them to live their lives according to their choices and their desires, and not simply by the inertia and trajectory if their current situations (whether good or bad). They are who I choose to spend my time with because on a different level, I love them… mostly collectively, but some individually, have made it into my heart and hold a special place there. Oddly enough, these are often the ‘tough ones.”
I think that the answer surprised some of the students sitting in that class. I don’t know if it was because I was honest and sincere, or if it was because they weren’t expecting an adult to say they liked being with teenagers all day. I don’t think they hear this enough from people outside their own peer groups. Paying a sincere compliment to a teenager is like putting money in the bank. Actually, it’s even better because it doesn’t cost a single cent, but there is absolutely no limit to what that little bit of positivity/belief/ inspiration/support can grow into. You may never see the dividends, but who cares? Knowing that it will be there, eventually, in small ways and great ways, is all that really matters.
I don’t know where I would be today if I did not have a host of adults who gave their love to me so freely and generously when I was a teen. And I had good parents, so it wasn’t like I was neglected or alone… but still, I needed that affirmation in my life. If it was not for one brief compliment, possibly made off-hand without any forethought, by my 7th grade social studies teacher, I may never had realized one of my greatest strengths.
In short, a good word is never, ever wasted.
If you have a teenager in your life, even if it’s just the neighbor-kid across the street who always has his earphones plugged into his head, let me encourage you to give him a bit of encouragement. Even if he doesn’t seem like the type who needs it. Even if you think he might look at you like you’re crazy, or worse yet, scowl at you for not minding your own business… Trust me when I say that they can ALL use it. It will be one of the best investments you ever make.