Sometimes, I get so busy in the throes of teaching — handing out papers, collecting assignments, turning on projectors and turning off lights, picking up gum off the floor, repeating what page we are on, helping students remember passwords and telling them for the 17th time what size font to use in MLA style, and ordering them to get out writing utensils, to sit down, to stop poking their neighbors — that I miss out on my very favorite part of teaching: Getting to know the students not as students, but as actual human beings. Humans with stories and lives and experiences and dreams that, unless I do some digging, I might know nothing about.
It’s as if the metaphorical thick and tangled forest of teaching is so dense that sometimes, despite my best efforts, I just can’t see the trees. But those trees are what I’m here for, and every once in a while I get a precious few minutes to focus on one “tree” at a time.
So I get a little break from teaching last week when the senior class is on a class outing for the morning. To my surprise, one lone student shows up to second period senior English. I inquire why she isn’t with her classmates, she gives me a reasonable answer, and we spend the rest of the period working on our various projects in comfortable silence, broken here and there by amiable conversation. I had liked this girl from the first day of school, but she is in a large class of almost 30 seniors and the truth is, I just haven’t had the chance to talk to her much one-on-one. This particular student is one of our oil field transplants, here from Louisiana. I’ve never been to Louisiana, I tell her, but I would like to visit someday. She tells me I should visit New Orleans, but not during Mardi Gras, and Baton Rouge is nice anytime of year. She loves to read; so do I, and the hour passes quickly as we talk about books and music and her other classes.
Sometime during this conversation, I ask about her family. She moved here a little over a year ago with her older brother and his wife. In a matter-of-fact manner, she tells me that both her parents died of cancer — her mom when she was 7, and her dad when she was 11. As she tells me this, her sweet but straightforward voice is broken by the tiniest trace of sadness.
I am ashamed in this moment, and sad. Sadder than I expect to be. In fact, I need to excuse myself for a few minutes (to the copy machine, because where else does a teacher get a minute to herself?) as I feel tears welling up in my eyes. How have I had this student in my class for almost two months and not known the heartbreak of this young girl’s life? She has experienced more heartbreak than I have, and more heartbreak than any young girl on the brink of womanhood should have to.
Should I blame it on the fact that I have almost 150 students this year, and really, how would I have known this? Six groups of 20 to 30 students rotate through my room every day, 50 minutes at a time. We have 50 minutes to get settled, open books, take notes, cover sentence structure or the Anglo-Saxons or the life of Edgar Allen Poe; to get ready for standards and standardized tests and ACTs and college and careers; to do an assignment, put away books, clean up, and move on to the next 50 minutes. The few rowdy students in each class demand more than their fair share of my attention, and sweet girls like little Louisiana, while I’m so grateful to have them in my classes, sometimes get less. Furthermore, a big classroom full of one’s sometimes judgmental teenage peers is not always the greatest place to share real thoughts, troubles, anxieties, past experiences, and dreams for the future. At least not out loud. Sometimes I get a glimpse of it in my students’ writing.
But it doesn’t matter. I can’t let the craziness of teaching make me forget why I’m here in the first place.
She lives with her brother and his wife, she says, because it is a better option than living with her other brother and his wife, and besides them, there is no one else, nowhere else for her to go. When they moved to North Dakota for her brother’s work last year, she moved too. When they move back to Louisiana this November, she will move too to finish her senior year.
I’m going to miss her when she leaves. I will think about her and wonder how my little student from Louisiana is doing. Where will her life take her? I will most likely never know. I hope with all my being that she succeeds wherever she ends up. And I hope, secretly, that she remembers that senior English teacher she had once when she lived in North Dakota.
I am grateful for the reminder she gave me, yet again, that no matter how thick and tangled and dense that forest of teaching gets, no matter how overwhelmed I feel during the daily grind or how much I feel some days that I am getting absolutely nowhere, that I can’t afford NOT to see the trees.
The trees are why I’m here.