Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A work of heart

Warning: this post is about love.

I'm not talking about feeling passionate about my profession or developing a meaningful relationship with my students.  I am talking about plain and simple love.  See, I am a girl who loves freely and easily.  I'm a Polly Anna, a glass half full kind of person.  An optimist.  That means, typically, over the course of the year, I learn to appreciate all of my students, and feel sincere affection for most.  And there are a handful every year that I really and truly love.

This is uncomfortable stuff.  This is the kind of thing that raises eyebrows and leads to awkward conversations about professional boundaries.  I hope you'll trust me enough to understand what I mean.  I love these darlings like a mother.  I feel compelled to nurture them, I feel proud of their successes and ache with their struggles.  I feel more than just a general sense of concern.  I worry about them when they aren't with me.

I'm sure I'm not alone in loving my students, but here's the thing.  I'm not supposed to say it.  Teachers, especially teachers of older students, are not supposed to use the "L" word.  We are not supposed to touch students.  Hugs are verboten; even high fives are suspect. I should, for my own job security and need to C my own A, not acknowledge in any way that I feel emotion...even one I consider to be a completely human and 100% normal.  This is hard for me.  I've been a nurturer all my life - I parented my friends in high school and college until I had children of my own.  I can sense what a person needs - whether it's affirmation, tough love, or a turkey sandwich.  So when you put 85 kids in my room, it's like taking a compulsive gambler to a casino but telling them not to place a bet.  It's HARD.  But, as is the case in so many aspects of our job, teachers are held to a higher standard than other people.  While I understand the stakes and respect the circumstances that gave rise to the hands-off rules, I must be honest and admit that it's difficult.  But I do it.  I force myself to go against my instincts, rein myself in, and keep my cherubs, literally and figuratively, at arms length.   

Never is this ban on affection more difficult than at the end of the year.   Kids cry and the mom in me would love to wrap them up and stroke their hair while I reassure them that they're going to be just fine.  Instead, I hand them tissues.  They want to hug goodbye.  The mom in me would love to give big bear hugs.  Instead, I offer an exploding fist pump.  Is it the same?  No.  Is it enough?  I honestly don't know.  However,  I recently discovered a lovely little outlet that both gives the kids what they need and allows me to feel more honest in the way I'm interacting with my darlings: The Yearbook.

For years, my go-to strategy was to draw devil horns, mustache and goatee on my own picture.  I started adding a signature when kids got sent to the office for being disrespectful.  (That was a fun conversation. "No, Paul.  Tucker didn't do anything wrong.  I drew that. ...  Yes, the hairy mole, too.")  But that was back in the days when it was still okay to lay a gentle hand on an unfocused child's shoulder as a way to redirect them.  This was back in the days when I gave and received daily hugs and I didn't feel the emotional void that I do now.  So now, my yearbooks messages are significantly more personal. 

Please don't misunderstand:  I haven't given up on the devil horns completely.  There are still a good handful of kids for whom it would be almost insulting if I *didn't* deface my picture.  They LOVE devil Cotillo.  And I certainly don't mean to imply that all of my yearbook messages now are inspirational missives that will lead the US to victory in the next Olympics.  Quite a  few boys in my B period this year got "You were a pain in the butt in class.  Don't ever visit me.  EVER.  jk.  not really."  But I have decided that these yearbooks are too good of an opportunity to simply let them slip by with a playful scribble.  If I'm going to inspire my kids to love out loud, then I best lead by example.

This year, when our 8th graders were herded into a courtyard and set free to graze and sign yearbooks, I made a deliberate decision and wrote about the uncomfortable stuff.

I told a few that they are beautiful and begged them to believe me.
I told some they were smarter than they let on and begged them to stop hiding it.
I told a handful that I hope my children would grow up to be like them.
I wrote that I admired their courage, compassion, friendships, independence, insight, sense of humor, effort, and growth.

Most of my inscriptions ended with a drawn heart.  Some ended with the word "love."  In the books of three students I went all out and wrote the words "I love you."  

There is a very real possibility that I'll never know what impact those words have on my kids.  Maybe they don't need it as much as I sense they do.  But then again, maybe it really helps.  I can, however, share this wonderfully timed story.

I began writing this post on a Tuesday night.  It began as a jumble of unrelated thoughts about the end of the school year and somehow I found myself writing about the "L" word.  I left it unfinished and sent Erin a text to let her know that it was "more a brain dump than anything."

The next morning I took my son to swimming lessons at the YMCA.  (Living in the town where you teach is not for the faint of heart.  I once had a former student sell me a pregnancy test at CVS...no lie. But there are moments that make it all worth while.  This is absolutely one of them.)  So I'm sitting on the bleachers next to the humid indoor pool, wiping sweat from under my glasses, when I hear a voice ask, "Are you crying?"  It's Mia, a girl I taught six years ago.  She was my student "back in the day," and that girl loved to hug.  I will never forget how she would barrel into me.  I swear she got a running start.  When Mia hugged, she hugged HARD.  Just writing it makes me smile.  How could anyone be in a bad mood after one of Mia's hugs?!  But I digress... 20-something-year-old Mia stood before me that Wednesday morning, and she's no longer a bubbly 7th grader.  Instead I found my self chatting with a very confident, well spoken young lady who plans to work in the field of music therapy.  We spoke briefly, she caught me up on her life and I told her how proud I was of all she was accomplishing.  We hugged.  

As Mia bounced away from me, she threw a casual "love you!" over her shoulder.  I called back, "love you, too!"  She turned around, walking backwards so she could see me, and said, "I know."

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