Unintended Consequences

One of the main reasons I decided to become a teacher and work in an urban public high school has to do with character. I believe deeply that every person is a product of his or her experiences–I suppose this puts me in the “nurture” camp on nature v. nurture. Of course the truth is somewhere in the middle, but my life has taught me that what happens to you is important in shaping who you are. This perspective is one reason I became a teacher–I expected the experience of teaching to change me in positive ways. I was choosing my identity as much as a profession, and I don’t regret any of that.

This doesn’t mean I tried to become the teachers from our favorite movies–although I truly admire characters like Jaime Escalante and Erin Gruwell. Good teaching has to be personal and personality-driven in some ways, so I was only ever intent on becoming Mr. E, rather than anyone else’s version of a teacher. For the most part, I realized my goals. Teaching has made me more compassionate, patient, and generous than I was before. I was drawn to teaching through my own idealism, so I endeavored to live up to my own high standards. Teachers were compassionate, patient and generous, as well as forgiving, energetic and a million other things, depending upon whom you ask and on which day. My own identity as a teacher shifts day-to-day, but some traits are durable. For that, I’m grateful.

I genuinely feel like teaching has made me a better human being, but I never expected to become so emotionally invested in my students. I knew teaching would require unflinching support, patience, strength, mentoring and generosity; I just didn’t expect to care so much about teenagers. In order to provide for my students and meet their needs, I ended up applying myself and investing my emotional energy in ways I could not have imagined.

Recently, I’ve been struggling with my relationship with one student in particular. We’ve had some disagreements, but the kid took to me right away. Almost in spite of myself, I reciprocated pretty quickly. Love and care for others is difficult to fake. I knew that this young man was in need, and so I tried my best to meet his needs, not only as his teacher but as a man who lacked a certain kind of love in my own youth. My father passed away when I was 7, and no men in my life have really served as a father figure. In some ways, this is why I love teaching and working with young people. I get to provide for others in ways no one ever provided for me, and that’s extremely rewarding. (*more on this in an upcoming post)

All of a sudden, entering my 4th year with the same group of students, I’ve found myself deeply reliant on students for my own feelings of self-worth and well-being. I’m closer to my students and student-athletes than most of the friends I have known in my life. I certainly spend more time with them. So when this particular young man–I described him to my mother as her first, unexpected grandchild–ended up in trouble not long ago, I was grateful that he called me and leaned on me for support. It felt (feels) wonderful to be able to provide some modicum of support. Then, with everything left up in the air, I didn’t hear from him for 10 days. Each day without contact, I was surprised by the amount of stress it caused me. Why did I care so much? Why couldn’t I focus on my own life?

A couple of my exes will tell you that I’m obsessed with my job, and they’re not wrong. I’ve interrupted more than one date for phone calls from students. Today, I’m less embarrassed to admit that than I once was, because I’ve come to realize that the value I place on relationships is just that–value that I invest. I’m in control of it. I decided to pick up the phone when these kids called instead of continuing whatever dull conversations I was having with dead-end dates. I chose, at least initially, to form a bond with so many of my students, and I don’t regret it. Even when I cant sleep because I’m wondering if this kid has a safe place to sleep, enough to eat, the love and care he so deserves, I appreciate the opportunity just to be a part of someone’s development. That I can contribute in a positive way is reward enough, not to mention the frequent reminders I receive that, even with my relative maturity, my students have plenty to teach me.

Earlier today, this student finally did call me back. He’s ok, still struggling with family problems and a rough home life. But he’s tough, and he’ll be alright. He apologized and explained being incommunicado for a week and a half by saying “I was trying to, ya know, find myself.” I half-chuckled, then queried what, if anything, he had found.

“Well, I came to realize that I cant let other people have control over me or my happiness…because they always let you down.” The kid is depressed right now, and all things considered, he has every right to feel that way. After trying to pick him up (I think successfully), I sat with that quote for a bit. Still am, in fact. Education is about self-discovery, now isn’t it…for students and teachers alike. 


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