On being a teacher

kelley teaching 3

I’ve been thinking about teaching and teachers a lot recently. Having been a writing teacher for many years, some of my own fondest teachable moments happened to me in my writing classroom. I made a lot of mistakes and I grew up in my classroom. I tried grand experiments that utterly failed, and I apologized. I learned to see, and in many ways, be seen as I wrote and read with my students. And I was always humbled by my experiences.

I have also always sought out teachers in my life. And I’ve been lucky enough to have been taught by beautiful men and women, older and younger than me, from all walks of life. They have taught me to grow up, how to be a mother. They have taught me to be a professional, to ski, to run, how to love and how to divorce, and how to love again in deeper and more real ways. They have taught me how to persevere, and how to think. Oh, and importantly, they have taught me to laugh and screw up, and keep on going even after I screw up.

And as a teacher, I think about my role because I love being a student too. And I think my students have often been my best teachers. That iterative relationship is an art in teaching, an evolving conversation where story unfolds so delicately. Sometimes it is chaotic, and sometimes it is surprising. The first day of class I never knew who would surprise me or change me, but in my classes, what I did know is that someone would. That I could always trust. Someone’s story would change my world, and I loved that possibility.  Still, I love that possibility. One time I had this student when I was teaching on the Eastside in St. Louis:

     He was in his mid-50s, and he was a plummer. He had failed English twice and this was his last try at it. He really wanted a certification and without English, he wasn’t going to get it. He stopped me after a class early in the term, and told me how nervous he was, which in itself was a huge act of courage. He was a big guy, more than a foot taller than me, and more than twice as wide. He said he really wanted to pass but he really couldn’t write. He needed to pass for his wife and his daughter. He already recognized that he was a failure for himself, but he wanted this for them. During the course of our conversation, which opened up over several weeks, I learned that he was a musician, a deacon at his church, and a Vietnam Vet. I learned that his son had been killed a block from home in a gang fight just six months earlier. I suggested that he write the story of his son for his English grade. He looked at me, stunned that it was possible to get a grade for something so personal.  He agreed. Over the next few weeks, he wrote and wrote. He wrote more than any other student in the class.
Toward the end of the term, his wife and daughter came to class. They hugged me and began crying before I was even formally introduced. His wife wiped her tears, and looked at her husband. He smiled, and stayed silent. Then she told me that her husband had shared his paper at their Thanksgiving family feast. She said that no one had ever told the real story of her son. When her husband read his paper she heard an honor between father and son that she had never recognized. She said that her husband grew taller. He was proud. So she arranged for him to read it at church next Sunday. She was hoping that I would join them so that I could see what I had nourished.
I did join them at church, wearing my best suit and high heels.
My student read the real story of his son to his congregation. That day I experienced many stories of love and community behind the media face of gang violence. I shared song and prayer, and fellowship. I was honored for giving voice. I honored them for seeing me, accepting me, and surrounding me with love. I was the only white woman in his church that day, and race was of no issue to me or to his family. I never spoke with him again after the end of that semester so I don’t know the rest of his story. What I do know is that I changed the world that day, and the world changed me.

It was a moment, a question and an experience that my student and I gave each other. Not answers. Nothing black and white, but a space to feel and change our perceptions of ourselves, and the world. That is what made us teachers for each other. And that is the gift of being a teacher and a student.

The road to becoming whoever it is we are or need to become is certainly not a well-worn and easy path, but when we find a teacher who can give us comfort, share wise insights, offer a map of experience, help us form our stories, or just let us cry a bit, we can summon our courage and, wow, what can happen, is truly beauty.

To all of us being open students and wise teachers for everyone we meet! Cheers!

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