I have a gift for you.
Every now and then, a student will ask me about my favorite books, my favorite writers. If I could have anything, what would it be?
I’m not good with receiving gifts from students. I feel awkward, as though my axis has shuddered and my center of gravity falters. I’m not certain what I’m supposed to do. Do I open this gift at this exact moment when likely dozens of eyes are watching me and I’m supposed to be preparing to teach? Do I wait for a quiet moment when I can appreciate what has been given to me but will mean that the student who is waiting for that exciting moment of joyful surprise won’t be with me? I can’t excuse myself to the hallway which is always the cue for “You have done something wrong and we need to talk about this privately.”
It also doesn’t help that I SUCK at writing thank you cards. I still owe thank you cards for wedding and baby shower gifts from the last two decades.
For all of you who have given something to me, thank you!
I have a senior this year whom I taught two years ago. That was my first year of teaching gifted and talented students and I spent the year tripping and stumbling through one unit after another. I spent the year alternately celebrating what I thought might have been successes and berating myself on every last mistake I made. No matter how hard I tried, I just kept on feeling like I was falling short of every goal and dream I had.
This was just after one of the best years of my career, a year when I had successfully wrapped up research on student apathy. The year I earned Teacher of the Year for my school. The year I really knew how I was doing and how well I was doing it.
And then came my first year as the sophomore gifted and talented English teacher and I felt like I was flubbing.
In the movie, Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts’ character talks about her childhood, talks about the mean things people said to her. Richard Gere’s character comforts her, tells her she is a beautiful, intelligent woman. And Roberts’ character quietly replies with something like, “It’s easier to believe the bad stuff.”
Now, before you grab your tissues, no one said horrible, mean things to me. I don’t need them to. I’m good at doing that for myself. I’m not emotionally abusing myself. I’m being realistic. I know my mistakes. I know when I didn’t reach the bottom-most edges of my measuring stick. I think it’s good to be aware of when I didn’t achieve so that I can reassess and try again.
Anyhow, that year, I had this lovely student who tried out for the play and earned the role of the antagonist. He took it really well, enjoyed himself. Worked his way through the play and had a great time. On closing night, the cast presented the directors with big soup mugs that had been autographed by the students.
On the bottom edge, were two words. “NEVER CHANGE.” Followed by this student’s name.
I took the mug home, baked it to make the signatures permanent. I used it once. Washed it and mourned with the signatures faded. Now, the mug is on my home-office desk, filled with colored pencils.
Months after this show closed (two years ago), I was getting ready for the day in my office when something caught my attention.
Thus initiated my second year of working with gifted and talented sophomores. I trusted myself. I forced my spine to stop bending and to stand upright with my chin pointed at the stars and to remember the joy of stopping and staring at the sky.
My special student auditioned for The Diary of Anne Frank and landed the role of Dussel. Anne’s nemesis.
This young man and I spent the months of rehearsal working on Dussel, trying to change him from the Annex’s antagonist into the man of Fritz Pfeffer, the real person whom Anne struggled to live with.
The audience still saw Dussel as Dussel. My student and I saw him as the man who loved his son so much that he sent his child to England to escape Nazi atrocities.
So the student’s junior year spun itself out. My second year of teaching gifted and talented ended on a beautiful high. I had my confidence back. I knew what I was doing and chose not to stare at an elusively corroding horizon. I found my spine in two words.
This year, I was blessed to learn that this student was once more in my class, this time in my senior level English class. I knew how to teach this group. The last time I had taught this level was the year I had completed my research. I knew each step. I knew every moment and how to plan through it. I was ready.
And so the year began.
Each day has been a glorious adventure, a chasing of ideas and thoughts down paths I had run down before.
And then auditions for this year’s play arrived. And this student auditioned and earned the role of Reverend Hale in The Crucible. Finally, my student was not the antagonist. I knew I could see what he was capable of doing.
Hale has been given a sympathetic, gentle young man who guides emotions out through subtle words and nuanced movements. The harshness of the antagonistic roles fell away like a vestigial skin and what remains is the fledgling shaking his wings and stretching them to the sun in order to dry. Trepidation surrenders to confidence and my student moves through the words and lines and stage directions without thought and an instinctive, fluid movement saturated in tone and meaning.
Last year, on September 11th, I wrote this student’s letter of recommendation. On a day I usually pause and reflect on my changed world and mourn, even briefly, for the horrific events which have forever altered my life, I sat at my computer and wove together as many words as possible that could give someone else a glimpse into this young man’s excellence. In a way, the trauma of 9/11 was suspended and I just didn’t feel its shadow that day.
I hadn’t forgotten.
I had a purposeful reason not to dwell. I had to help a young man achieve his dreams. That was so much more important than any shard of grief I could feel.
Somewhere around the point when the autumn was yielding to winter, this student indicated that he wanted to give me a gift. I rebuffed him. I didn’t need anything. I certainly didn’t want anything.
Helping him and his peers was gift enough.
The student, though, was not about to be thwarted. A week ago, he told me he had ordered something for me. I demurred, tried to focus on my lesson plan, on the fact that I was not going to allow myself to get sick (I was in the process of coming down with Influenza A), on the blocking I was trying to fix. Anything other than the fact that a student was giving me a gift I felt like I had not earned.
Today, he left rehearsal early for a doctor’s appointment. Came back about an hour later. Stopped by the table where I was sitting and going over blocking and lines and tonal analysis and vocal modulations. The student gently deposited a small packet, a small bag that looked likely roughly woven burlap.
I considered waiting for after rehearsal but curiosity is something that I can never hold at bay. I took a moment, opened the bag. Pulled out what I thought was a silver pocketwatch.
Much like what the student had bought for himself last year for Dussel, a prop I had always loved.
“Open it,” he said by way of correcting me.
A compass. A beautiful compass rose with a red tipped needle pointing me to my true north.
“Look at the inside.”
I carefully turned over my compass.
Within the lid were two engraved words.
A lifetime of meaning.
The red-tipped needle swung and trembled as it pointed me to my true north: NEVER CHANGE.
“Now you will never get lost,” my student said.
I hugged him. I gave my actors a break as I collected myself and the spinning emotions that kept pulling me back to my true north.
I am the Compass Rose of the Appalachian Trail.
My students are my compass rose.
My students are my true north.
I am my true north.
God is my true north.
I have my true north. My two words. My three syllables. My eleven letters that echo my heartbeat.
I have my compass rose. I have my red-tipped needle and my true north. I will stand under a sky golden with stars while the owls sing and I will kip my head back and stare at invisible longitude and latitude lines and chase my dreams.
I will live my life with a little less fear and a whole lot more courage.
I will continue my journey to my true north. And along the way, should I get lost, I have my compass to guide me.
Thank you Jake.