I see the future of my six-year-old son in the eyes of my teenage students. I see his moments of meltdown and separation, faulty logic and cautious steps, and I love him up even more. I step in closer. I don’t leave. I don’t give up. Boys are falling behind when it comes to graduating from high school. Only 77% will succeed. For Black males, that number drops to a dismal 47%. This fall, men will comprise 44 percent of students on college campuses, a number that continues to fall. I have to ask myself, how are we failing our boys? I don’t want to fail my son.
I started teaching college freshmen after a ten-year hiatus. I walked into the classroom the other day, greeted everyone with a cheery, “Good afternoon!” and got . . . nothing. Just nothing. Not even crickets. Well, one-half smile from one young lady, but that was it. Oddly, it warmed my heart. Let me explain.
Years ago, when I first began teaching undergrads, it would have unnerved me. I would have been dismayed, disheartened, disillusioned. But today, it doesn’t. In the past, I would have said I don’t care, but the truth is, I care now more than ever. Being a mother has done this. I don’t want to fail them in the same way that I don’t want to fail my son.
When I teach, I move in closer to my students. Their disinterest and boredom touch me. On the second day of class, I asked them if they are creative. Half said no. These are art students. Art students. I looked around solemnly, observing them. No judgment or pity. I didn’t need to reason or convince. I just needed to listen. And what about when they were children, the age of my son? What about then? Cracks of sunshine lit up the room. Yes, then. For moments they all remembered games and stories and vast imaginations. I had suspected it was there even if buried deep. I looked at the boys who broke with their fathers’ desire for them to be narrowly defined as men. I looked at the girls who were taught to play safe and risk nothing. All of them are here, taking a risk, growing into becoming adults. My son will be like them one day.
I sat with my students in the liminal space between creativity and the place where it had been beaten out of them or locked down or judged or wasn’t what the teacher or parent wanted. I try so hard to be a parent and guide, not to wring the creativity out of my son. Some days I do better than others.
Then, I asked my students a question because I am so full of questions (like my six-year-old and maybe because of him): “Could you learn to be creative again?” The student who had been so tight-lipped and certain of her uncreativity was the loudest. Yes! she proclaimed. Yes! The others nodded, and I listened.
We were all standing together in the delicate space of possibility. I didn’t want to spackle it all over with my 45 years of blah blah blah experience. I wanted them to feel that space as I have felt it and lost it and found it again. I wanted them to feel it as my 6-year-old feels it.
On the first day of class, after the initial rusty minutes of class creaked on, I felt my heart crack open and melt all over the classroom floor. I wrote my lesson plan on the board. I explained it to them, and then I got down to the dirty work of teaching. I loved every blank look, every withheld smile, every moment when they could have reached for their phones to check out but didn’t. I loved seeing the lights go on, the mouths open into smiles, the laughs (and probably more groans or silence). I loved them all as I want my son to be loved.
The suicide rate for the U.S. population as a whole increased 24 percent over a 15-year period. This was 14.2 percent of 100,000 males in 2015. Thirty percent of transgender youth reported a history of at least one suicide attempt. I sit with all of that as I raise my son. A few months ago he told me he feels like he is half-boy/half-girl inside. I listened and got curious. I asked him what he needed and if he needed anything. He didn’t. I keep an eye on what he says as I know he is most at risk.
One of my students—a young transgender woman—told me she was glad she had come back to class after she had disappeared for two weeks. She said it made her feel better to be there with me. I soaked in this ray of sunshine because I’ve been around the block long enough to know that not every student feels that way, and that’s okay, too. I still love those students fiercely.
In the meantime, life goes on and some students still come late to class. An unprecedented number seem to harbor strange ailments which prevent them from coming at all, but others are there, and others come back after absences.
You see, there may be a time when my son is that sullen teenager who distrusts the adults around him. He might be quiet and brooding. He might not feel creative or hopeful or interested. He might be suicidal or close to failing out. In my heart—the one that is teacher and mother, teenager and six-year-old—I hope the adults around him will still listen to everything he’s got and love him up all the same.
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