When I divulge to strangers that I am a high school English teacher, I am typically met with skepticism. “You teach teenage brats all day? How do you deal with their attitudes? I would never subject myself to that kind of abuse!”
This response always offends me. It suggests that I am nothing more than a glorified babysitter who supervises unruly teens for a living when, in fact, teachers do so much more. Yet it also suggests that my high school students are nothing more than a bunch of jaded, spoiled, obnoxious, unruly teenagers, capitalizing on any opportunity possible to take a mile when I give them an inch. This simply has not been my experience.
The aforementioned critics typically conclude our conversation with something like, “Well, it takes a special kind of person to teach kids!” And they are absolutely right. It certainly does. At times, teaching involves a kind of empathy that is indescribable, and exhibiting this on a daily basis isn’t always easy. Nevertheless, it’s so necessary and, even better, it’s so profoundly rewarding.
I get to build relationships with students at one of the most exciting times in their young lives. I get to attend their sporting events and cheer loudly, proudly and obnoxiously from the sidelines. I get to chaperone their dances and, admittedly, cringe when they dance just a little too close for comfort.
I get to console students when they’re riddled with stress about their futures and encourage them to dream bigger when they don’t believe in themselves. I get to help them navigate some of the most trying times in their lives, times when they’re making decisions about their own identities, morals and values. With this role comes great responsibility.
Simply put, I get to cultivate meaningful relationships with students, ones which last long after they leave my senior English classroom at Dwight Township High School (DTHS). This is my favorite part of teaching.
I am reminded of this fact daily in my interactions with my current students, but my appreciation for the longevity of these relationships was reaffirmed last week while lobbying for public education on Capitol Hill. To be clear, I travel and advocate for public education frequently, and sometimes this endeavor is very lonely. I end up in random cities and dine alone because I don’t know anyone. I wander unfamiliar streets aimlessly and without purpose in an attempt to “take in the sights.” Such was not the case, however, on this particular trip.
In an unconventional turn of events, my husband accompanied me on a recent trip to D.C., and we had big plans to explore the city together as tourists on our one unscheduled day. But that plan quickly became secondary when I received an unexpected message from Bubba.
I was packing for D.C. when I heard the Facebook messenger notification and discovered the following:
So a little birdie told me that you're going to be in D.C. this week! How long are you going to be in town? If you find time, we should definitely meet up!
My teacher’s heart exploded when I realized it was a former AP English student whom I hadn’t seen in quite some time. I had followed his journey online, and I received frequent updates from his parents about his experiences attending a military academy in D.C., but I never imagined he’d want to meet up with his old English teacher from high school.
Oh my goodness! I would love that! My husband and I could do lunch on Saturday. How does that sound?
He asked about our plans for the day so that he could recommend a lunch spot close by, and he instantly replied,
There’s an Italian place on Pennsylvania Ave that has really good food! That sound good? It’s not too far from my campus and an easy walk to the White House for you guys after!
Sounds perfect. We’ll see you at 11:30! CAN’T WAIT!
Naturally, I insisted that my husband and I arrive early. I didn’t want to keep Bubba waiting. After all, he certainly had better things to do. He was young and vibrant and in the middle of chasing his dreams. It baffled me that he would initiate a slot in his time card to meet up with us for lunch. But he did.
When Bubba arrived I nearly leaped out of the booth, over my husband, to hug him. No longer an awkward senior boy contemplating his future, what stood before me was a confident young man with immeasurable ambition.
We talked about all that he’d accomplished since his days at DTHS. He explained his daily routine at the military academy. He told me about his classes—both the ones he loved and loathed—and about his academic success. He inquired about life at DTHS, and I shared stories from our small hometown.
We talked about the remarkable ambition of his older brother, Nick—a former student who was already an accomplished journalist and sports editor at Loyola University—and I updated him about his little sister, Isabelle’s, progress in my current English III class. He shared how she plans to open a golf course someday. I expressed how his parents beam with pride each time I see them at the grocery store. To summarize, it was the perfect lunch.
Eventually, however, our lunch came to an end because Bubba had a big test coming up that he needed to study for, and my husband and I had plans to visit The National Portrait Gallery. I teared up a little, wondering when I’d see Bubba again. And after laughing, hugging, and saying our goodbyes, my husband snapped the following picture.
This is why we do it. We can talk about content expertise and methodology and pedagogy and curriculum and standards all damn day. But our work is about relationships. Our work is about connections, and those connections do not end when our students leave our classrooms. These connections are sacred. They transcend time and space.
I am humbled when I think about the thousands of connections I’ve made with students and their families over the past 15 years. Seeing Bubba thriving in a new city, full of joy and ambition that will take him to places unknown, serves as an important reminder that each and every teacher in his life had something to do with his journey to success.
Admittedly, I later walked the streets of D.C. with my husband, feeling just a little bit taller, knowing that I had played some small part in this “kid’s” happiness. And that is what I love about teaching.