I made a proclamation on my personal blog that I was going to try to focus on being more mindful and aware in my day-to-day life. Part of the commitment to that includes setting a “theme” for myself, and this week has been about love. I’m writing today’s post here, though, because so much of the love that I live is generated in the work that I do
It’s weird to think about it now because it’s become so much a part of my identity, but I was incredibly nervous about taking a job in a high school. Beyond my internship, I never worked with young people. What’s more, I didn’t really want to. I was certain that I was going to work my entire career in colleges and universities because the kind of work I wanted to do in my discipline is usually only done in those places. I wasn’t (and am still not) terribly interested in, or particularly good at, teaching fundamentals; I want to dig into the critical and the analytical and to make complex and difficult connections in a cooperative, dynamic, discussion-based classroom, not to spend my days lecturing or grading worksheets and bubble tests or teaching kids what a noun is.
I took the job at Charter High for a couple of reasons; I really loved what CHS was doing in terms of teaching and learning, I connected almost instantly with the woman who would be my director, the community college where I’d been working had closed, and I wasn’t getting much of a foothold at Local U; I only taught a freshman English course or two in the fall (and let’s not forget that I had no intention of getting a PhD, and one rarely gets a good job in the English department of a university without one). I was intrigued, as well, by the idea of working every day with teenagers.
My only real concern in taking the job was the kids. I had no idea if I COULD work every day with teenagers; please remember that I’ve got one in my house – and one coming up fast behind her – so I had an up-close-and-personal understanding of the… shall we call them frequencies?… of teenagers. Needless to say, the thought of being soaked every working day in the drama and hormones and attitudes of dozens of young people who were not my own presented a formidable challenge to my courage.
Two years in, though? I wouldn’t change a thing.
The truth of the matter is that I adore my job – I can’t wait to get up and go to work in the morning, and I think a huge part of that is the kids. I was, frankly, shocked by the rapidity and intensity with which I fell literally in love with the students. They are each wonderful and amazing and infuriating and endearing in their own ways, and I find myself caring about them far more than I ever imagined I would.
Because I care so much about them – as people and as students – I am inspired to continue my own growth and development – as a person and a teacher – so that I can provide them with the very best I can possibly offer. I am mindful of my roles as mentor, teacher, and example of responsible adulthood. I let my students see who I really am; I talk passionately and honestly about the things I care about, I argue with them when I think they’re wrong about something, and I listen to them when they’re willing to talk to me (which is a lot more often than I would have expected, given how demanding I can be with them). I make sure they know that I love them; I call them by affectionate nicknames (they are collectively my “babies” and I have been known to refer to some as “Sweet” or “Honey”) and I make myself available to them as much as I can. I look at them when they talk to me, I don’t bullshit them, and I treat them as if they’re important to me (because they are). Sometimes, I come right out and tell them that I love them (though that’s often followed up by an admonishment of some sort, as in “You know I love you, right? Good, now shut up and start writing“).
Of course, that kind of affection brings with it its own set of complications. My husband worries that I give too much to my students – not that I reveal too much of my personal life to them (though they do know some of our family stories, those stories are always relevant to whatever point I’m trying to make at the time), but rather that I’m opening myself up to pain and disappointment by caring for them as much as I do. Mr. Chili tends to be more emotionally cautious than I, and I understand what he’s saying, but I simply can’t be any other way. I can’t think of my students as just a part of my job; that’s just not how I operate.
A few months ago, after a school assembly where the student body was essentially told to straighten up and start working, I brought my class together to talk about what was going on with them; I wanted to know what was holding them back and why they weren’t working at even a fraction of their glorious potential. One boy, who is a particular favorite of mine (see? I love them!) looked me in the eye and said “Mrs. Chili, you really have to learn to let us fail.” That prompted me to go home that night and dream that this student and several others called a meeting to order in which they informed me that I needed to stop loving them because they simply couldn’t handle the pressure. I went to school the next day and told each of my classes about that dream. I also told them that I had no intention of ever not loving them, and that they were just going to have to learn to accept that. They are my babies, and I love each and every one of them, even when they send me to the very brink.