I believe in the power of not knowing. I have been an English teacher for seven years. In that time, I have adopted and annulled many beliefs about what works in the classroom. Once I believed in grammar, but I stopped, as my students could rarely retain the difference between nouns and verbs. I used to believe in exacting punishment for infractions. Now I believe in asking, “What’s going on?” I used to believe in a rigorous curriculum; gradually, I began to question, to doubt, the value of latching onto anything with any amount of certainty. Now the only thing in which I have any measure of confidence is how much I need to remain open to teaching, especially when it comes to helping my students through difficult times.
In the years that I have been teaching, I have had 500 different students. More than once, a student has grabbed my attention. Joshue was one such a kid. He was lanky but not skinny, quick but muscular. His long face was strong, but wide, open and blushed when I complemented him. His wore his hair gelled in rows that looked like furrows in the earth. He was contained, private, but when he wrote about boxing, his favorite sport, his work was luminous, especially to an utter klutz as me. His eyes were clear and bright, but I now know they must have caged a world of hurt. In the week before the shootings at Virginia Tech, Joshue shot and killed himself.
I believe that the only thing I will be able to say to my students when they return from their spring break, is that I don’t know what to do. I do not know why this happened. In last weeks before my students graduate, I know that we will have to rely on each other to arrive at the end of the school year with a limited amount of bumpiness.
Teaching is such a peculiar job. I used to believe that all I had to do was perform a well-rehearsed one-person version of The Gift of the Magi in order to enrapture my students. But, doing so cuts off the transactions that make for a spontaneous and lively discussion. When I have been most effective as a teacher I have admitted my utter helplessness and with my students solved a problem. While to date nothing as serious as this has happened I can see that the colossal missteps I have made have prepared me.
That first day back will undoubtedly be the most difficult of my career thus far, but I will keep myself open to the mystery of the bond between my charges and me. Perhaps, in the moment, I will know how to respond. Perhaps in the fashion of an English teacher, I will quote Kurt Vonnegut and remind everyone, “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
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