I'm sitting in my classroom, hunched low in my comfortable teacher chair. The lights are off. I’m rubbing my eyes and my temples in an attempt to massage out the remnants of a mild headache. It’s been a tough week of teaching.
And right then, a student peaks his head into my window. A mess of curls atop his head. Big glasses that look like they were transported directly from the '70s. A white hoodie that is frayed at its edges. Faded, fitted jeans with holes at the knees. Earbuds hanging at his ears. And a face full of light. For purposes of privacy, I will call this kid "R."
R’s heart weighs heavy on my mind. He is failing six of his classes. He hasn’t turned in any homework in weeks. He wanders the halls on “bathroom breaks” for chunks of 20 minutes at a time. And yet, I adore him. Not in spite of these things. But with all of these things. He’s funny. He’s personable. He’s smart. And we share the same taste in East L.A. oldies.
Earlier in the week, we called a meeting between his teachers and college counselor to let him and his mother know that, even in the best-case scenario, he would attend our school for an extra year. R sat quietly behind his mother. Every word seemed to bounce off his skin.
His mother told us about R’s recent loss. His best friend was killed just a week or so before. This friend lived next door in the project housing where many of my students live, just a few miles from our school.
"How are you doing, mijo?" the counselor asked R.
"It’s whatever," he responded, quietly, and shrugged.
All of this just a few days before, and now back in this moment, he is in my window, waving and smiling.
I wave back, hesitantly.
Despite my lights being off, despite my slouched demeanor, despite what I felt were very clear social cues, R opens my door.
"What’s up, R?"
"What’re you up to?"
"Nothing, mister. Just hanging out."
This will not be a story of how I fixed R. He did not need fixing. Instead, it’s a story of how I tried to fix myself. In this moment, I realized I had two options:
- Option #1: Trust my self-serving natural impulses.
This was my immediate reaction to R’s presence. The little voice in my head that gets going without much consideration for anyone but myself. If I trusted this voice, I would erect an invisible emotional wall between R and me. A wall that would protect me from him. A wall that would block me off from his experiences, his suffering, his humanity. To be honest, I might have been better off emotionally. I could have slept better that night.
And this was my initial choice. I could hear it in the way I greeted R. I could feel it in my demeanor. I could see it in where I chose to point my eyes. Averted. And away from him.
Now mind you, impulses are important, but impulses also often lead us astray. My impulses make me irritable, tense, sad. They make me judge people based on how they look, how they talk, what they wear. They tell me that if my immediate needs are not met at this very moment then I am somehow being wronged by my loved ones, by society, by the universe. That this universe is happening to me.
And in this moment, my impulse was to separate myself from R because he was taking away this time I need for me.
But then there’s this other option. One that is much more difficult for me to make.
- Option #2: Interrupt those impulses and make a more conscious choice about how I react to R.
I can take a deep breath. And I can remember that everything I think the universe owes me is a lie. The universe owes me nothing. People owe me nothing. And if I start from that idea, then I can start to make more conscious choices about what brings me joy in this world. I can make more conscious choices about what serves me and the people I love in these moments, rather than what serves the narrative I’ve created about my life and what I deserve.
So I sat there. In my comfortable teacher chair. R walking towards me.
"What’re you up to?"
"Nothing, mister. Just hanging out."
And I paused. And even though my impulses suggested putting up a front, I took a deep breath. I lowered my tone of voice. I looked him straight in the eyes. And I said, "How are you feeling about your friend?"
R sat down in front of me and told me about a bike accident outside of a movie theater. His friend made it to the hospital but passed shortly after. He told me about his fears about the next year—that his friends would all be gone. He told me that he worried about his mother worrying about him.
We talked for 20 minutes and we solved nothing.
And he walked away.
And that was it.
We Are All A Work In Progress
Every single one of us is a work in progress, fearful that one day someone will unmask the fact that we’ve been winging it all along. And so, the best we can do is work to be better people every day of our lives. The best we can do is look at the choices we made yesterday and make better ones today. And, you know what? We have to forgive ourselves when we don’t. And keep on trying anyway. And we need to allow space for the people we love to grapple with becoming better people as well.
I have to remind myself every day that the universe is not happening to me; it is happening to everyone. I have to remind myself that we are all trying our best to get through this sometimes taxing life. That we are all asking to be seen. And that I get to decide what small injustices from the universe I’ll allow myself to carry. And what small joys and connections I’ll allow this life to bring me.
I get to decide. I decided that day to make space for R to be human in front of me. In that moment, I thought I was doing it for him. But it was just as much, or even more, for me.
It reminded me to let people—to let my students—be fully alive in front of me and, standing in the presence of their humanity, allow myself to change. Allow people to change me. It reminded me to make better, more intentional choices about what impulses I act on every day.
And it reminded me that the best thing I can do for myself, for my students, for my loved ones is to stop with the small talk. Pull down my emotional wall. Take a deep breath. Pause. And ask more often—as often as possible—"How are you feeling?"