This I Believe

Michelle - Mountain View, California
Entered on July 17, 2007

What My Students Teach Me

When I first began teaching, I was 22 and full of passion for the written word. I couldn’t understand why twenty-five sophomore boys and seven sophomore girls didn’t relish the idea of discussing a short story for forty minutes of our class period. They thought it far more amusing to throw wads of paper at one another while I was writing on the board.

In that first year, a family friend, also a bilingual education teacher, gave me some advice: “Remember that you’re not teaching a subject, you’re teaching your students.” I didn’t have any idea of what that meant then, but I do now.

Over the past seven years, I have taught my students Shakespeare, the semi-colon, and thesis statements. I have grown eyes in the back of my head and taught them not to throw things in my classroom. They have taught me about hyphy culture and how to pronounce “Yadidameen.” They have lent me movies like Fight Club, obsessed over teen fiction like Twilight, and helped connect vocabulary to the real world (as in the song “Promiscuous”). They have walked me through the intricate social cues of MySpace, and clarified, albeit pityingly, the difference between Puff Daddy and Snoop Dogg. However, they have also taught me something far more important: how to be a better human being.

I watch them day after day, heads bent over books or notes, making sense of the texts around them. I want to tell them that they are intelligent, they are competent, they are gifted and blessed with various talents, but they might not listen to me. Because their grades are low, because they need a tutor, because their talents might not be the “stand up on stage and show me what you’ve got” kind.

I want to tell them that they’ve taught me about real grit—the kind that keeps coming to class day after day, when school seems impossible and textbooks seem impenetrable. They have taught me about true learning, when a student who was failing came after school for extra help, knowing that it would not grant him extra credit or a passing grade, but because he wanted access to the knowledge that he struggled with understanding.

In their forgiveness for my mistakes and moments of impatience, they have taught me how to forgive myself. They have taught me the importance of being able to laugh at my own mistakes, and that it’s okay not to get it right the first time.

They have taught me the perils of snap judgments, for my assumptions that lateness to my class is due to laziness or apathy instead of a disabled sibling, or unemployed parents, or serious depression. They have taught me what it looks like to keep one’s dignity when internal pain nearly consumes the spirit. They have taught me about brutal honesty and about their desire, above all, to be loved and appreciated. They have taught me to love them in all their eccentricities and brokenness, in their cussing and in their silence. Although I can’t always show them, although I lose my temper or keep to my code of strictness, each one of their names is branded on my heart.

I believe that my students have taught me to be a student of humanity, and in doing so, have expanded my capacity for compassion.