I don’t understand why there is a shoe in the middle of the girls’ bathroom. Just one single shoe. Who’s wearing the other one? And I don’t understand why someone is chipping away at the window frames. It’s your bathroom. The teachers have their own, so if you make a mess on the floor or overflow a toilet, you are the ones who will have to get your feet wet while you pee. I guess I understand that your brain might not yet be capable of comprehending that.
I don’t understand how you can make faces and refuse to listen, but then come up to me at dismissal and tell me that you love my class. I don’t know why the twenty-eight of you can’t figure out that if you would just shut up and listen, we’d be able to get up and play games. I don’t know why I can trust you to work together for four minutes at a time, but not five—never five—or the entire room unravels and you lose your minds and jump on top of tables and hang from pipes.
I totally get that this is all about relationships; you have to like me to listen to me. I’m sorry I’m so bad at hitting the Quan.
I’m sorry I still don’t know all your names. I’ve decided that my brain can only hold 200 names, and I might just never learn the other 120. To be fair, some of you still can’t remember mine, and you only have eight teachers.
I don’t understand how I can have so much love for a bunch of kids who drive me crazy. I think it has something to do with the fear I see when I look into your eyes—underneath all the attitude, and the giggles, and the bravado, I see that first introduction to fear curled up behind your retinas. Sometime in the last year or two you figured out that there are things in the world that you can’t control, and your parents (if they’re around) can’t control, and even your teachers can’t control. It terrifies you, and for the first time ever, you’re trying to figure out how to avoid or cover over or disguise that fear. I have bad news for you, my scared little ones: that fear is going to be with you forever.
I know you can’t cope with the fear. I know you can’t cope with whatever is happening in your homes, or with your friends. So I will cope for you. We may not learn advanced acting techniques, or achieve all of my lofty educational goals. You won’t learn how to be an amazing artist in my class—you have high school and college to discover that. But you will know two things for sure: that you are safe in my class, and that you are loved. And that is the starting place, as storytellers and as artists. I will teach you to open your hearts and to be joyful, and if that means we watch “What Does the Fox Say” at the end of class, then so be it.
This is middle school, which means I’m catching you at a time when your hands can still be pried open, and no matter how much you pretend to hate your life, you’re still listening. I know you all secretly want that super star artist of the day award. I know that for some of you, school is the safest place in your entire world.
I can remember what it was like to be thirteen, and to have a great reason for every stupid thing I did. I remember the complicated relationship I had with my parents and teachers, and I remember what it felt like to be so young and yet feel so old. Hang in there for another ten years. It gets better.
Being a teacher is so much messier than I thought it would be. But so is anything worth doing. And if you have to be down here in the mess, I’m glad I’m here with you.
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