They’re not like any other student I’ve ever taught before. Their scars lurk well below the surface, their origin stories lurking in shadowy urns covered in cobwebs. These students are undignified and ungraceful and immediate with their defense mechanisms against any perceived threat or offense or insult.
They are stained glass butterflies whose legs and antennae are razor blades. They swoop and swarm around me and I marvel at their beauty.
Only when they have fluttered away, I stare with perplexed curiosity at the long, divine cuts along my arms and hands.
These are my students. These are the fifty children who inhabited my classroom for the last four months.
And I loved them.
Really Graceless…but you just compared them to a malevolent species of butterfly….
I did. I didn’t. Because I know this species. Because I have been this species and can easily resubmerge into my own cocoon and become one again.
Or maybe I never evolved and have only learned to sheath my hurtful edges while I do lopsided loop-de-loops through my life.
I have been teaching for about twenty-five years. I have endured malicious students, one of whom drew a swastika behind my back…perhaps because I held him to a weird thing called accountability. A student one tried to attack me….because I made her change her seat so that she would be more inclined to stay awake and then, maybe, pass.
I won’t even narrate some of the other experiences I’ve endured. The child who said I needed to die….
Wow. I sound like such a martyr. A victim. A “poor, wee lamb.” Trust me. I’m the black sheep. The odd duck. I’m God’s platypus. I’m anything but a victim.
I’ve heard real stories of teaching in the trenches. I’ve seen those who really did survive the horror stories that I couldn’t imagine being real.
I’ve become comfortable in my last five years of teaching. For three years, I taught gifted-and-talented 10th graders who craved intellectual stimulation. Last year, I taught five sections of dual enrollment 12th graders, students who were earning high school and college credit at the same time. I was spoiled by students who loved critical thinking and nuanced abstractions and answers that had didn’t really answer the questions being asked.
I had tricks up my sleeve. Oh, I was the veritable magician of teaching. With one hand, I’d incinerate flash powder grammar lessons and with the other I’d flick tarot cards of doomed Imperialism prophecies. I was Daedalus building the labyrinth and giving everyone different rolls of thread.
And then I sold my house. And moved an hour away. And learned of a new job and applied and interviewed three times and was bequeathed a new position in a new school.
And I, the cocky magician, walked into my new theater and started the performance and it fell flat on the ground and flailed like a dead paper rabbit.
I never really collected all of their stories. But I could see the flickers of their experiences in my students’ eyes. They wanted to be intellectually challenged, to see the world in new ways. But they were wary. Of me. Of any teacher who stood in front of them and raised her hands as though she were leading an orchestra or was snagging the next labyrinth brick.
They watched me. They waited for me and for what I was trying to do. And, steadily, one at a time, some fell in behind me. They picked up their pens and pencils and did what my collaborative partner and I were trying to teach. I showed them commercials and, at first, they scoffed at what the patterns pulled out and showed.
Slowly, the trust built. Slowly, the anger or frustration or hostility wavered.
The butterflies shifted. The wings folded closed, opened partially, snapped shut. The bodies hunched over their respective blossoms and they siphoned off the nectar I offered.
I stumbled. I fell amongst them and felt a sense of defeat, a brokenness. I became brittle and my skin became translucent and I scuttled through my days.
I retreated and drew up my defenses. I huddled within myself and stared hollowly at the shadow puppets I loved but felt like I didn’t know how to love.
And then came my last day with my students. I gave them the evaluation form and asked them to be honest and I girded myself. I had failed them. I hadn’t done enough. I hadn’t been able to connect with them the way I wanted.
The results filtered in.
Some responses confused me, were a bit unsettling.
But most, overall, were positive. My collaborative partner and I had succeeded. We had done more than just give the students material that was rote memorization. One student described how we had made her see the world in a new way, that we had changed how she saw things. They said we were wonderful, that we had challenged them, that they loved our lessons and the new challenges we threw at them.
The scratches on my arms disappeared, perhaps had never been there in the first place. Or maybe they were of my own invention. Or maybe I had accidentally scratched myself in holding myself together as I learned the nuances of my new students.
They are not like any other student I’ve taught before. And I don’t know that I will ever return to the fragmented, not so special pedestals of gifted and talented/dual enrollment education. I stood within those halls and loved those moments. I loved those students.
And I love my collaborative, 9th grade students just as much. They are beautiful to behold when they stop doubting themselves and trust their instincts. They are beautiful when they allow the damage they contain to bleed into healing and trust. They are beautiful when they hold my hand and celebrate a hard-earned C which, to them, is as glorious as an A.
They are beautiful, and I saw it but failed to recognize it immediately. But I see it now. I see it all the time when I think back and look at long days through a different lens.
I have a week until the new set of students arrive. I have new techniques to accompany my old tricks. I’m ready to discuss Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and subject-verb-agreement.
I don’t think that I will ever be as dazzling as the master teachers I’ve met and read about and learned from.
But I’m ready to be dazzled.