Have you noticed I fall in love often and easily? Yeah, me too. But it’s hard not to when I am constantly surrounded by people who are so painfully and adorably lovable. Yes, of course I’m talking about my students. I fall for other people, too, but no one wins my heart as fast as my students.
Anthony (who, if that were really his name and he were to say it, would make it sound more like ‘Ant-n-ny’) is in my night class. He’s 17 and so full of exhuberant energy, he’s almost overwhelming. He is completely cute, with eyes and a smile that mark him as the ‘playful mischief’ kid, the one who was always into something, but didn’t get into trouble because he was too good-natured to punish. And he’s smart. Knows all kinds of stuff and what he doesn’t know, he picks up quickly. He’s got great attendance and throws himself into whatever work we’re doing.
He has befriended the whole class, greeting each student with an ionfividual handshake every night, knew everyone’s name almost as quickly as I did. And he says them in his fabulous, stereotype-of-Brooklyn accent. He walks right over the invisible line that often separates the Asian students from the rest of a class and pulls everyone into whatever joke or story he’s sharing.
He wears two small pendants on a thick gold chain around his neck. They are photos laminated and framed in gold. One is his dad alone, the other is his parents’ wedding picture.
I have been trying to make sense of Anthony since I met him. He absolutely doesn’t belong in my class. Maybe he slept through the placement test? That’s the only way I can imagine him winding up in my group. He should at least be in level 2, maybe even level 3. It’s not that long since he was in school, and it’s so clear that he likes school, that he took it seriously when he was there and spent a lot of time learning stuff. So why didn’t he stay? Why isn’t he at Fort Hamilton or New Utrecht right now, starting his senior year? He’s the kid who you know has some deeper story, but none of it’s on the surface. His presence in my class is such a puzzle.
I had a few pieces filled in Saturday night. I went to dinner with my dear friend Grace, who is also my supervisor at my night job. As we were driving through Park Slope, I told her what I’ve just said: that I love Anthony, but I can’t figure him out. And she had a few things to tell me.
Anthony’s mom called Grace the other day to find out about me … well, not me, but me. She wanted to know who his teacher was because apparently he goes on and on about me: how great my class is, how great I am. “Anthony loves his teacher,” his mom said. (Yes, I am completely pleased to hear this. Considering how much I adore Anthony, this is working out well.)
His mom wanted to know if she could get her other son into my class, see if I can do for him what I’ve done for Anthony. She explained that her husband died a little over a year ago and that the family is gutted and hasn’t been able to pull back up from despair, that she in particular is so deep in her grief she’s afraid she’s hurting her sons, afraid she can’t ‘do right’ by them. They were crazy about their father and she doesn’t know how to help them deal with losing him when she can’t find a way to deal with it herself.
But Anthony loves me, she says, has been so different since starting class. And she wants to see if I can work this magic for her other son, too.
Grace and I talk about the fact that maybe Anthony doesn’t belong in my class academically, but that maybe he needed to be in my class, needed to have me as his first teacher now that he’s trying to return to school. “Everybody likes Sarah,” she says. Sarah is the level 3 teacher. “Everybody thinks she’s great, thinks she’s cool, but it sounds like Anthony needs the love.”
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Bonnie mentioned in a comment on my last Heridas de Amor post that some people might frown on the kind of closeness I have with some of my students. I understand the frowning. As long as there are teachers who abuse their relationships with students, there should be some serious frowning going on. I’ve thought a lot about that, and how it affects how I will or won’t be as a teacher.
But there has to be room for the closeness, too. So much of the good that happens in classrooms, that opens the door for learning, is about the relationship between teacher and student, about students feeling safe with their teachers — safe enough to be vulnerable, safe enough to take chances, to try work that takes them out of their comfort zones.
In some ways, this may be even more important in adult ed classrooms. Students in these classes are often coming back to school after painful, dehumanizing, damaging school experiences. Some, like Anthony, left school because of a loss or trauma in their home lives. Whatever the reason for not finishing school, one thing is true for every student: they have all their walls up, and it’s really hard for learning to get through those walls.
My love for my students is part of what chips away at the barriers. They feel it strongly enough that students I taught a thousand years ago in high school still greet me like a favorite, doting aunt when we run into one another on the street.
And here is Anthony. Funny, sweet, clever Anthony, chatting up Song and Sunny as if they were his buddies from the block. Anthony, wearing his love and grief on a chain around his neck. What’s not to love?