A while back I received a message from a former student of mine, an alumnus who has moved onto bigger and better things. He was an excellent student with a really keen sense of who he was and had an extraordinarily quick wit, a combination I love. Those who can give me a run for my money, who are not afraid of their certainty of self that so many students lack, are to be cherished.
Too many of my students have the ability to be original, but can’t apply that surety because it sets them apart, and in high school, woe to those who are different. Well, this individual, we’ll call him Brian, he had it, and in spades. He was a great athlete, an amazing student, and just a good person.
In his message, Brian said that he was writing an essay for a scholarship about someone who positively impacted his life and he chose me and wanted to know if that was okay. I was, of course both humbled and flattered, but also skeptical. I was flattered and humbled to hear that something I did impacted a student in some way, and since I don’t take praise well, I did what I usually do in that situation: I made a joke about it.
This usually manages to offend the giver of praise, or at the very least makes everyone feel awkward, but he took my fumbling with grace, which only increased my skepticism; I trust a student’s sudden interest in me after a few years about as far as I can throw my paranoia. Which is not far. But still, I gave my consent.
A few hours later, I received another message and in it contained his scholarship essay. I opened it up, fully expecting something nice about how I reached him on some level, how some Shakespearean lesson called out to him (I had a couple of really good ones), or maybe even how I once randomly surprised him in Disney World during Thanksgiving break; but one of the first things I noticed, about four sentences in was the line: “…Mr. Curet saved my life.”
I was stunned. I was literally stunned. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breathe. I was just, stuck, like someone pulled out my batteries or hit the reset button on my brain.
Saved his life? I did no such thing! Surely this was some sort of weird play on words or hyperbole to garner sympathy toward his burgeoning student debt, so I read on. I wish I had not done so during a class.
In this essay, he said, “(Mr. Curet) emphasized everyone should chase their dreams, no matter what stands in the way. His words never resonated with me until March 31st, when I was diagnosed with cancer.”
See, Brian was diagnosed with testicular cancer. This young man, still a kid in many ways, was faced with a horror most of us never hope to have to deal with, but I remembered that he handled this development with such grace and positive attitude that I rarely felt bad for him, although I didn’t want him to think I was aloof to his suffering either.
He went on to say, “My doctors said there was an extremely high chance I would never play soccer again… As the news spread throughout my hometown, my family and I were bombarded with messages of pity and sorrow. I felt like a burden to my family and struggled to know that every person I interacted with pitied me. This all changed the very next day, thanks to Mr. Curet. In a heartfelt email loaded with jokes, he became the only person I truly wanted to interact with. I went to see him and we shared a few laughs and stories, and I left feeling relieved. I left feeling not as “the kid with cancer”, but as Brian. In the following weeks, I underwent various surgeries and procedures with this new positive attitude… Today I am not only cancer free, but a college soccer player… I don’t know if Mr. Curet knows he is the reason that today I am living my dream. I am sure, however, if I were to never cross paths with Mr. Curet, I would either be dead or living a life which I was not brave enough to chase (them).”
By the time I finished reading the essay, the whole class I was teaching noticed something was wrong with me. They were supposed to be working on a project, not watching me cry, dammit. I pulled it together and finished my class, but Brian’s words echoed in my brain the remainder of the period. Hell, the rest of the day.
Now, I don’t allow myself the hubris or the gall to think I was actually responsible for saving this man’s life. He had too strong of a character to just give up. He would have found some other reason to go on, some other inspiration to get him to where he needed to be.
But on that day, it happened to be me. What I said, and what I did, resonated with this human being when he needed it. And I wish I had known he was in such a dark place, I wish I had known he needed inspiration because I would have said something more profound than jokes like how I “dropped the ball” to a man with testicular cancer. But still, I changed a life that day, and this thought terrified me.
As a teacher, how many of my students have been in a similar spot in their lives and I was similarly blissfully unaware? I’ve had kids who’ve lost siblings, parents, boyfriends and girlfriends, who have been through a hundred different travesties, and what if they needed something to boost them then, and instead of well placed but poorly tasted joke that took them out of their respective funks, I ignored them. Or was too harsh with them? Or worse yet, just dismissed them?
As I said, I know most of my students would find their inspiration elsewhere, like a teacher who was in the right frame of mind that day, or a motivational cat poster. I am not that special, but still, the thought lingered.
The thought of what I could do haunts me. As does a face. Her name was Sarah and she was in the very first class that I taught. Oh, those poor souls. I had no idea what I was doing and if anyone learned anything in that class, it was probably by accident.
Yet this girl, this young woman was moved and left high school to become a teacher. A few years ago she came to interview me about being a teacher, and we caught up and joked and I answered her questions. I had come to learn that I was the reason she wanted to teach so that she could reach young minds too, but instead of being supportive of her goal, I basically told her to get out while she still could. I was in a bad place that year and I may have not been the best person to hand over sage pedagogical wisdom and inspiration, but when I watched her face as I told her to reconsider being a teacher, I could see her heart break.
With a few words I crushed this girl’s spirit, and I watched it happen in front of me. She collected herself, she asked a few more perfunctory questions, then got up to go with a curt farewell. I’ve not heard from her since. I fear I changed a life this day too, and the thought still terrifies and saddens me.
It is a wonderful thing being a teacher. We can reach out to hundreds of students and influence their lives, and while the vast majority of our students won’t remember us after a few years, the ripples we leave behind as we toss pebbles of knowledge into their pool of self will echo through eternity, however minutely. Those ripples may only move but one grain of sand, the shores of their persona still have been forever changed.
However, every once in a while we will throw a really big rock, a veritable boulder, and we’ll never know it until we watch what should be ripples become waves which completely change this person’s internal shoreline. I had somehow managed to change someone’s life, and I didn’t even know it. That is what’s terrifying about teaching: that you will probably never know when that moment will be, so we have to try to make all our moments count.
I didn’t write this to self congratulate myself on a job well done, because in truth, most days I feel more like I’ve failed than I’ve succeeded. I write this to all the teachers out there to remind you that what you do matters. That you do, in often small and imperceptible ways, change lives. You don’t just teach a subject. You teach compassion, you teach understanding, you teach thinking to hundreds and someday thousands of students.
You could always just teach a subject and clock out at three, there is no dishonor or harm in that. It’s a crazy amount of pressure to put on someone without the personal aspect added to it. So much so I didn’t know if I could handle this job, and I’m not always convinced that I still can, but I’m going to stay.
And I’m not going to stay just because of all the Brian’s or Sarah’s I’ve taught, because of the lives I might change, for good or for ill, but because of all the other students. Because now, more than ever, we need to be a guiding light into this darkness we are finding ourselves as a nation. When our elected leaders speak out against entire populations and belief systems, when I have students coming to me with tears in their eyes because they feel like half of the country just said a veritable “Fuck you, and your religion/race/identity,” when our students’ fears overcome reason and people lash out in anger, our place is in front of our students, standing up for everyone, and teaching them by example.
I will teach compassion by showing my students what it looks like. I will teach understanding by listening to all of my students, and respecting their ideas and opinions, especially when they differ from my own. I will teach them how to think for themselves so they won’t fail where we did as a country. And while I’m at it, we’ll read some good books too.
I wrote this to remind teachers that no matter who you are, or where you are, you matter, and hundreds of young men and women are watching you. Listening to you. What will they see you do? What will they hear you say? Make it count, because you never know when you’re holding a pebble, or a boulder.
“Brian,” thank you for thinking of me. I’m glad I was there for you when you needed me, and that something I did had a positive impact on your life. You helped me rediscover my center and I’m glad I had a few extra stones for you, God knows you needed them.
And Sarah, if you’re out there, I hope you became a teacher. I hope I didn’t change your path, the world needs people like you in it sets an example for our children. I hope you are gently tossing pebbles, and passionately throwing boulders.
Originally Published on Stupid Optimism