Saintseester, in a comment to my last post, wrote these very true words:
I know these egg-heads are frustrating; I try to remind myself (daily) that it is the “trouble” I remember. The good students who work hard tend to slip by our radar because they are not giving us fits!
She’s right – the squeaky wheels really do get the most of our attention. I also find, as I’ve written before, that these, oh, how do I put it? – let’s call them challenging, shall we? – these challenging students are the ones who teach me the most about what kind of teacher I am and what kind of teacher I want to be. I really do love my problem children for encouraging me, through their completely unbelievable antics, to constantly expand and polish my teaching practice.
Lest you think that all my teaching experiences are frustrating ones, though, I’m going to tell you a story about one of my good kids.
I have a couple of really stellar students this term. Smart and articulate, motivated and inquisitive, these kids thrill me in class discussion. They’re willing to probe, to question and, on occasion, to step out on to limbs they’re not sure will hold their weight. They make gorgeous connections between what we’re working on and what they’ve noticed out in their worlds. They’ll challenge the things I tell them – I love that – and force me to articulate my lesson in a way that demonstrates that I really do know what I’m talking about.
One student in particular stands out this term. I’ve mentioned this boy before – he’s the one who presented me with this week’s Grammar Wednesday question – and we’ll call him Renaissance Man, or RM for short. He’s really deserving of the name; his interests include politics and history, he’s a hiker, a surfer, a photographer, and a rock-climber, and my impression of him is that his young body houses an extremely old soul – I can just see it in his eyes. He was a participant in last term’s composition class, and he signed up for my public speaking course this semester. I was thrilled to see his name on my roster.
Last week, I tasked the students with composing and presenting a commemorative or appreciative speech. This has been a favorite activity in classes past; students get to speak about something that’s personally meaningful to them, they don’t have to research the topic, and I don’t require a written component to the assignment; much of the pressure of the usual work is off in this activity, and the students consistently hit them out of the park.
RM volunteered to speak third, following a student who gave a lovely tribute to the first responders of 9/11 and a girl who gave a gorgeous speech about how deeply she was moved by attending the birth of her half brother. They were tough acts to follow, but RM was totally up to the task.
He strode confidently up to the podium and started to tell us about someone who was crucially important to him – his grandfather. His introduction was beautifully crafted; I felt as if I would recognize the man if I were ever to meet him. It was going remarkably well, and RM had us hooked.
About a quarter of the way into the speech, though, something happened that I would never have anticipated from this boy. RM’s eyes filled with tears and he ground to a complete and dramatic halt. He stopped talking. He looked down at his paper while gripping the sides of the podium. He let go, stepped back, and bit his thumb, still staring down. Then, after what felt like an eternity, he took a deep breath, brushed his hair away from his eyes, took another deep breath, nodded ever so slightly, and returned to his speech.
It was a profound experience to watch RM completely lose, then determinedly regain his composure. As I sat there, watching him founder, I was seized by the desire to quietly tell him that he could return to his seat, but something stopped me. I KNEW he could do it, and more than that, I wanted him to know that I knew.
When he was finished, I looked around the room and found that not a few eyes were rimmed with tears. RM was sitting directly behind me, and I turned around to ask him if he wouldn’t mind deconstructing what just happened – if he would be willing to share with us what he had to do to stay upright at the podium and go on with his speech.
Jon took issue with this request and blurted out that couldn’t I see that RM was upset and why would I make him talk about it?! I responded that RM had just given us an enormous gift for an opportunity to learn, and that he had every right to decline my offer. He didn’t – I knew he wouldn’t – and he spoke about the experience of losing his grandfather and the opportunity that he was given, at the age of 13, to speak at the man’s funeral. He spoke about how, then, he’d not been able to regain his composure; he was a child, and he so desperately loved and missed his grandfather that he was helpless to stop the tears, but that didn’t stop him from speaking. What he had to say was important and necessary, and no one expected him, then, to keep himself together. He finds, he told us, that it gets easier to talk about his beloved grandfather as time goes by, but that he’s still so important to who RM is as a person that he’s not sure he’ll ever be able to speak about his grandfather without having to do an enormous amount of flood control.
When he was finished with the debriefing I’d asked him for, I asked the students to write a brief response piece about the experience of watching what had just happened. As the students were writing, I wrote, too, and here’s what I said:
I mindfully fought the urge to speak up – to allow you the chance to go back to your seat without finishing your speech – but something (someone?) stronger than the desire to spare you discomfort held me back. You are a strong soul, and you had something important to say. I didn’t wish to rob you of that opportunity by implying, by allowing you to sit down, that your struggle to control your emotions was less important than the audience’s discomfort at watching that struggle.
I sat here willing you strength. I imagined (or, perhaps I didn’t imagine) your grandfather here willing you strength. Your ability to regain your composure and go on with your beautiful tribute to your grandfather was inspiring, and I’m grateful to you – both as a teacher and as a feeling human being – that you were willing to do this difficult bit of work.
Oh, yeah. I’ve got good ones.