Literary Quote for Your Weekend: On Working with Actual Human Beings

“If every person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.” –RJ Palacio, Wonder

“Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.” –Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

There are no ordinary people.
You have never talked to a mere mortal. . . .
Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
–C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

One of the few memories I have of kindergarten is a somewhat unpleasant one. I don’t remember all the circumstances, but the gist was this: I had refused to recite something to my teacher, and my parents found out.

Upon learning what I had done, my parents drove me back to the school in the early evening and marched me into the classroom where I completed the required recitation.

And apologized to my teacher for the way I had acted.

My parents were big on apologies, and this scenario would be repeated multiple times over the course of my life. It never really got easier for me; the perfectionist tendencies were incredibly strong in me even as a young child. As I grew older, I learned to be overly cautious so that I wouldn’t have to repeat this experience. I would rather take no risks than have to humble myself to apologize for a mistake.

I still don’t like apologies; it’s tough to swallow my pride. But, this has turned out to be an incredibly useful and necessary skill for my career.

Here’s the thing: it’s April. The time of the school year when teachers and students, teachers and other teachers, teachers and administrators, teachers and, well, anyone, irritate each other. This is the time of year when I start fantasizing about how to customize my job to perfectly align it with my skills and preferences.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about the flipped classroom, an intriguing concept that I’m not really going to discuss except to say that one reason for the conversations is the relatively large amount of media out there for teachers to use as resources: all kinds of videos and lectures that are engaging, funny, and fantastically produced. I enjoy these myself. In fact, as I watch entertaining educational videos, I find myself thinking about how great it would be if I could break into this industry.

How great would it be, I think, if I could just teach without all the other responsibilities the profession entails. If I could just deliver amazing, funny, thought-provoking lectures all day. If I could just dispense with the papers I need to grade, the parent phone calls I should make, the conversations with students who believe their grade, a classroom practice, a classmate, or a school policy to be unjust, the restless nights where I can’t sleep for worrying that a particular student might not graduate.

In short, all the responsibilities that indicate that my job requires that I interact with other human beings.

Teaching, real teaching, is messy. No matter how much we want our classrooms to be engaging, at the end of the day, teaching isn’t a show or entertainment. Students aren’t as fun as a fan club. The kids and I—we get on each other’s nerves and in each other’s business. We get mad at each other. They don’t always think I’m cool, and let me tell you, I’m not always cool. I make them read difficult texts; I expect a lot from their writing; I’m not patient when they want to be lazy.

And sometimes we’re all just having a bad day and struggling to be nice.

As much as I get the urge to ditch the classroom and do something where I could “just teach,” I know in my heart that that would be a completely different career. Not a less worthy career for someone who has that skill set and passion, but a completely different career from what I now do. To give up the parts of the profession that I don’t like would also mean giving up the eventual benefits of those responsibilities.

Benefits, you ask? Yes, I tell you. Let me share what I would miss out on if I gave up the more frustrating tasks of teaching.

I would be giving up the experience of being stopped in a store by a student who, a few years earlier, had slept almost the entire way through my sophomore English class. A student who shocked me by saying, “You were the one who really got me into reading literature. I remember that we read Othello, and now I love Shakespeare. I’m going to college now, and I really like my English classes.”

I would be giving up reading countless writer’s notebook entries from students who, I was convinced, had hated me. These entries at the end of the year tend to say things like, “I know we didn’t always get along, and I know I was difficult, but I wanted to thank you for not giving up on me.”

I would be giving up on confronting my own issues and impatience and short-temperedness. There is nothing like teaching (except for probably parenting) that forces me to stare down all the character traits that I don’t care for in myself, traits that usually show up when I’m stressed or overwhelmed.

And finally, I would be giving up the experience of students who have stopped by my room or sent me a note online after graduating to apologize for some behavior they exhibited the previous year. Yes, this happens. Sometimes these students tell me things like, “I just got back into town, but I wanted to come tell you. . .” It is perhaps the most moving experience I have as a teacher.

And the most humbling.

Knowing how hard it is for me to apologize, I am astonished at these admissions from young people. That young men and women could have the maturity to deliberately approach a teacher in a public place, to write a note, or to come to the school, seek out a teacher, and make amends for issues we might have had from the previous year nearly does me in. I don’t know that I would have had the courage to do something like this at their age, and I’m only marginally sure I would have that kind of courage now.

Their courage, however, inspires me and teaches me how to respond when I make a mistake. Just as my parents always taught me, I should apologize. When I’m cranky, when I mess up a grade, when I let my snark out of the bag in the wrong context, I should apologize. I still don’t like it, but I know that I must a) model this behavior and b) follow the example of students who have inspired me to admit when I’m wrong.

These are the formative experiences I would never have if I gave up my classroom. As much as I love to create and deliver a fantastic lecture, I know that’s not all my students need from me. They need me to exist in relationship with them. No matter how much I wish I could just stand in front of the classroom and be witty and smart and funny all the time, I know that real teaching involves relationships, and relationships involve people, and people are irritating and imperfect. But I also know that when my irritations and imperfections collide with those of others, if I humble myself, we all might just learn something.

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2 responses to “Literary Quote for Your Weekend: On Working with Actual Human Beings

  1. Well said! I was just writing my own post regarding students having little respect for their peers that are different. As teachers we do not typically receive the recognition but when you do have that one student who decides to reach out to you, apologize, it changes your outlook and makes all the ‘negatives’ or the mess of the job worth it. Four years ago a student sat in my classroom and drew a representation of myself, per his perception and embellished it with a few derogatory comments. He passed it around the class until I was able to retrieve it. I still have that illustration in one of my file drawers but this made for a long couple of years with this young man. He always talked about moving back with his mom out of state and last summer he did and did not return to our school. However I did receive an email from him, that stated he knew he made mistakes, he was sorry for treating me poorly and thanked me for continuing to work with him so that he felt successful. That email by the way is in the front of my plan book!!! So yes with all of the messy frustration, it takes only one apology to redirect one’s purpose and love of teaching!!!!

    • Thank you so much–I have a file of these kinds of notes myself! It really is so inspiring to watch them grow up. It’s something I always tell new teachers also–you have to wait a few years before you can have these experiences, but they will come!

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