WHAT MY STUDENTS TAUGHT ME
As a first year English teacher at a small rural school in northwestern Illinois, I naively thought I could enthrall students with the beauty of the English language and demonstrate how good stories reveal truths about the human condition. If anyone had told me how miserable my first year of teaching would be, I would have ducked out fast and become a C.P.A. or a bagger at the local Jewel store. Forget about fashioning the bright minds of acne-faced teenagers whose hormones are so out of whack they are bouncing off the walls. The irony is that it was my students who compelled me to become a better person, for they taught me flexibility, compassion and a greater tolerance for human differences.
Gradually, I learned to switch gears when I saw my students’ eyes glaze over after fifteen minutes of conjugating verbs. Slowly I became more attuned to their needs and interests and discovered their varying abilities and maturity levels which stemmed from different backgrounds and problems.
Jenny, a very bright and mature girl, was confined to a wheel chair with cerebral palsy. Her garbled speech and awkwardness alienated her from other students. Tom also was extremely bright but had a noticeable stutter which did not deter him from waving his hand wildly and answering questions with great confidence. Michelle, a remote and quiet girl who wrote fabulous essays, confided to me after school one day that she was pregnant and contemplating suicide. I often came home fretting about my students and felt overwhelmed to contemplate the uncertainties of their future.
I discovered that even the most troubled students had attractive qualities. Even the most toughened students wanted to please and wanted to be liked, no matter how perversely they expressed it. The greatest difficulty was realizing that I couldn’t rescue them or make their lives better outside of school, but I could lend them a voice and authenticity in the classroom. I wanted to give them a chance to discover their voices, to be heard, and to learn skills to help them build their lives. Many young people grow up thinking of themselves as stupid and deserving neglect or abuse. I wanted them to think, “She thinks I’m worth something.”
After ten years I moved from the area and reluctantly announced my resignation to my students. The next day I was stunned to walk into the classroom to find dozens of cards, flowers and chocolates on my desk. I wept openly as I read the cards. Some said that our class discussions changed the way they viewed life. A few said they now loved literary analysis and writing. Some said I had inspired them to pursue college. What they didn’t realize was that it was they who made me comprehend my limitations and allowed me to confront humanity with all its sorrows and joys.
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