To those who have recently asked, upon further reflection
Because when I find stories and questions and experiences that excite me, I think, I have to share this with my students.
Because I wake up at night and think, what about Elaina who sits in the corner with her eyes turned down and her hair pulled tight around her face like curtains into another world?
Because I let the students make the rules. And it feels right.
Because they laugh at my jokes, most of the time.
Because my students remind me that we’re all on a journey to someplace else and none of us knows exactly where that place is or what we’ll need to get there and so we’re all just gathering what we can for the ride.
Because Ricardo wants to understand the meaning of life, so instead of writing an essay, he makes a video collage of his friends and teachers and family. He asks them all what the meaning of life is to them, how they help that meaning manifest. He makes them think and squirm and laugh. A month later, one of Ricardo’s friends, a guy he didn’t interview, takes his own life. Ricardo tells me, “I don’t understand any of it, but my video kind of prepared me for this.”
Because teaching teaches me to love patiently and to practice empathy.
Because Tara comes to class with a chip on her shoulder, and I’m determined to knock it off. Two weeks in she’s complaining and I’m tap dancing around the room, telling jokes, trying to get her to crack a smile. She’s a stone. Five weeks in she’s staying after class asking me about what makes some sentences beautiful and some sentences blah. We talk about sound and syllables, metaphor and voice. Be yourself, I say, and parts of her face soften. Eight weeks in she’s not happy about having to work with other students. I say, I understand. I say, do it anyway. And she does. By week nine, I’m exhausted by the sound of my own voice, so I give my students a poem, and we read it together. By the last stanza, Tara’s eyes lose their threatened glare. She says softly, “I used to write poetry,” for the whole class to hear. By finals week, she stays after again, “You know,” she says, “I don’t get along with most teachers, but you’re alright.” And that’s how I know I’ve done something right.
Because teaching means I get paid to share what I love with other people.
Because the worst part of my job is grading stacks and stacks of half hearted writing, and the best part is helping students learn to fly.
Because Lexi asks to leave early on the first day of class, tells me she’s taken this class before — a similar class in high school — but didn’t get college credit for it, so she knows it all already. And I tell her that she’ll need to be present to pass, that her knowledge might help someone else learn, and who knows, I might just teach her something she doesn’t already know. She asks to leave early two more times. The nerve of this girl is astronomical. It shakes me up. She’s telling me I’m not a real person. She’s telling me her time is better spent on her cell phone, with her boyfriend, at her minimum wage job than learning how to dissect the world with me. She’s telling me this whole college thing is just a transaction, and she’s not dealing. So I’m a little hurt, and the third time she asks to leave, I let her go. But before she packs her bag, I say, if you leave we’re going to miss your insights. Just think about it. And dammit, she stays. Quiet in the back corner. But she stays. And when she comes to my office at the end of the term for our final mandatory conference, she apologizes for “being an ass” and tells me she did learn some things from my class, “and besides that,” she says, “you let me paint a multi-genre essay about time travel. That was pretty cool.” And we become something other than two bodies trying to break free from each other’s orbit. We become people growing toward a light.
Because for a few weeks at a time, I’m connected to dozens of lives I wouldn’t know any other way, and we’re all changed by that connection.
Because we’re all adrift in the same deep ocean, and sometimes I see the lighthouse. And sometimes they do. That’s how we stay afloat.