I have learned to appreciate recently that one of the most sensible, truthful, meaningful bits of wisdom out there for me this semester is this: sometimes what doesn't break you will make you stronger. When I think about those words of wisdom I'm not thinking of sleep woes, or parenting challenges, or too many deadlines coming crashing down upon you at once (although I could be speaking of those things), but about the challenges I've been facing in a particular class this semester. Teaching is funny--because so much depends on the delicate equilibrium that exists in the class between teacher and students, and students and their peers. Sometimes when I think about the classroom, I think about our 55-gallon fish tank. I know this seems strange, but really--in order for a tank like ours (filled not with ordinary fish, but those enigmatic and troublesome African cichlids) to be successful, everyone in it has to reach a peaceful state of co-existence--an equilibrium. If one thing is thrown off--a few rocks removed, or the introduction of a new fish, or a slight change in the water chemistry, then the symbiotic harmony in the tank would be thrown off--with potentially disastrous results.
Of course the differences between a fish tank and a college classroom are pretty major, but most days, before I step into one particular classroom, I take a deep breath, count to ten, and steel myself for the next hour. I've tried it all: group work, fun projects, straight lectures, grammar drills, games, creative writing work, yet it all fails miserably. A few stalwart, responsible souls who sit at the front of the classroom have saved my sanity time and time again. But the rest of the class? They have driven me almost to the point of insanity--belching in class, text messaging through group work, cursing, throwing books--you name it, they've been there. I have not given up on them yet, but I have lost my patience too often. I've spent large amounts of time racking my brains to come up with where I went wrong. I've analyzed my teaching style--made changes here and there--revamped the syllabus in mid-semester, included new readings, taken out other ones. I concluded recently that the problem isn't with me, or the actual curriculum, but with the personalities of the few in the class who have upset the delicate equilibrium.
But yesterday, just as I was lamenting this and that, and feeling dragged down by the burdens in my life, and tired from lack of sleep (again), and feeling disconnected with the class and yes--downright disappointed in them, frustrated in myself as a teacher, and with youth in general (what's wrong with young people these days?), questioning, even, my choice of profession--a student raised her hand right at the end of class and asked if she could share her narrative essay.
I did a double-take (no one in that class ever asks to share anything--even the stalwart, responsible souls).
"Of COURSE you may!" I told her.
And as she plunged bravely into it, stumbling over her writing, speaking above the disrespectful chatter of the students at the back of the class and the click-click of the text messaging, I forgot about all the burdens I thought I bore. I forgot about being tired, and about the students who seemed determined to break me, to ruin the class for the few good ones. As I listened to this student tell a most heart-breaking story--one about indescribable personal loss and tragedy, one that was too dark and sad for someone so young to have to tell, I realized that the rest of the class had grown quiet, too. They listened to the student read, tears rolling down her cheeks, and as that brave girl--braver than myself--told her story, I marveled at just how much power words can have over people, even people who think they care nothing about them.
And that is a lesson for a lifetime, I think.
I'll see you back on the other side of the long weekend...Happy Passover and Happy Easter and Happy Weekend!