The thing about teaching is that as quick as a student can make you feel like a million dollars, they can turn around and knock you right back down again. And I am not talking about the little things, like getting called a bitch or students saying “This is boring!” in my class. I am talking about the moments that shake you to your core, that give you nightmares, or the moments that make you feel invincible.
Moments like…when a student asks you to read her paper and as you do, you realize she is writing about the exact themes you have been talking about all year, that she is smarter than she thought she was, that she stands up for what she believes in and for that she is proud, that she will be the first person in her family to graduate and go to college. As you read her paper, you feel the tiny waves churning over your lower eye lid and you tell her she is brilliant and that you want to know if you can give a copy of her work to the principal because it is so good. And she smiles and loves herself, and she loves you, and the words that she has the power to put on the page can live on forever.
Then you turn around and there is a student with their head phones in, not working, glaring at you as you walk over to him and ask him why he is not working. He has nothing to write about he says. You go through a list of things we have covered in class this year, racism, empathy, standing up for what you believe in, education, truth, beauty, you give examples, you ask him questions. Over and over he reminds you he does not care about any of those things, they are boring, they are stupid. You try to connect specifically with him, equal rights, discrimination, he says these things have nothing to do with him. I am looking at an intelligent high school boy who is black, who loves football, who I know is a fantastic writer when he wants to be. He lives in a crime ridden neighborhood that he shares with most of my students, and that neighborhood is grossly neglected by the rest of the city because of class and race. I am looking at a student who in the beginning of the year was one of my best and favorite kids, and now he can only say that nothing in my class this year has anything to do with him. Now I feel the tiny waves come back again but they come from a different place than before. He turns his head phones back up defiantly so that I too can hear his refusal to participate, and I watch as he puts his head down.