Speaking of My Students

I.

On the day that I sat down for lunch with Tori, I didn’t have a plan in mind.  Tori is one of my most energetic and inquisitive Algebra students, as well as my youngest.  I had asked her if we could have lunch together sometime; as her teacher, I wanted to get to know her better.  She agreed, and on the next Monday morning asked me bluntly, “Do you still want to have lunch with me?”  Of course I did, and we decided we would meet at a table in our combination cafeteria, auditorium, and testing center known simply as The Great Room.

“I just feel like I’m never good enough, and I’m never going to be good enough.  It’s like there’s a hole in my heart where my dad is supposed to be and I’m trying to fill it with all different things, but none of them are working.”  Tori’s statement floated above the din of The Great Room, bringing a momentary pause to our lunch of chicken tenders and PB&J.  I didn’t know this part of her story.  

Our daily interactions in Algebra class were lively and peppered with questions, many about my personal life: whether I wear a black clerical shirt all the time (even when I sleep and bathe), if I listen to music in the car, if I’ve ever smoked marijuana, and would I still be allowed to be a Jesuit if I had.   It was this inquisitiveness that made me think to ask Tori to sit down for lunch.  She was always so curious about my life, and yet I had rarely stopped to ask about her own.  Now, I realized that I knew startlingly little about it.

Once begun, Tori’s words poured out.  I learned about her family, her interests, her aspirations.  I sat eating my sandwich and listening, at one point silently motioning to help herself to the Twix Bar I had brought for dessert.  The conversation shifted gradually from Tori’s favorite foods and music to her feelings of woundedness and fear, and I watched her body language, wondering if it would change with the deepening subject matter.  I had registered the shift in our conversation, but if Tori had, she did not show it.  Her words remained steady, her eyes clear and unwavering.

The bell rang and I encouraged Tori to be on time for her next class.  It seemed she would have been glad to stay and talk despite the volunteers cleaning tables around us.  I sensed from her eagerness to share that she liked this lunchtime conversation – one of the few between us not driven by Algebra or my own agenda.  I liked it, too.

Still, as she left I became aware of a feeling of discomfort in my stomach.  Along with gratitude for our time together, I recognized discomfort at my sudden awareness of Tori’s pain.  It was well into the spring and I saw her in class every single day; why didn’t I know these things about her?  She always had such specific questions for me.  Even my leading sentence at lunch had been more of an imperative than a question: “Tell me about yourself!”  Tori sped off to class, and I wasn’t sure how to respond to what was left behind.

*    *    *

On another day I arrived at school early and greeted the students who had arrived even earlier.  Three of my students were sitting together, laughing loudly.  Sitting down at a free seat, I listened to the story being told by one, emphatic commentary from the other two playfully filling in even the smallest gap.

The previous Sunday had been Easter, and our student storyteller was relating an unexpected encounter with her father.  It was informal; they had crossed paths at a gas station.  This prompted another to share her last memory of seeing her dad.  She had been staying with her grandmother for the summer in another state, now many years ago.  Their laughter never stopped and so I smiled hesitantly along with them.  I took their apparent comfort with the telling of these stories at the beginning of the school day as my cue to be comfortable, too.  Suddenly the third student turned to me and asked, “Did you ever have daddy issues, Mr. Nicholson?”  A moment of silence fell between us as I took in the question and reflected on my own childhood.  I thought of my father, and countless happy memories we shared together quickly came to mind.

I couldn’t relate to the experience of my students.  Ours wasn’t a perfect family, if such a thing exists, but waiting for my dad to get home from work each day and kissing him goodbye before business trips were the stuff of my childhood.  And so we passed by the situation the way we often handle things that are hard: a witty remark from one and a little laughter allowed the moment to pass, and each of us continued about our day.

*    *    *

My student Nicole and I sat on coarsely textured, beige plastic chairs in the waiting room of the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia on a Saturday in late April.  In the chair to my left sat a woman who had come to visit her brother, recently arrived from Mexico, even more recently detained by ICE.  He was awaiting an immigration court date that statistics showed would not go his way.  To my right sat Nicole, a bubbly freshman with an easy smile.

We had packed up a school van that morning and driven two hours south of Atlanta to spend the afternoon visiting immigrants detained at Stewart.  Each student from our group had to be paired with an adult, but it was really the students’ chance to visit with someone.  We had spoken about the realities of detention and deportation of immigrants on the ride down, and the students were both excited and nervous for their encounter with an unknown person on the other side of a plexiglass wall.

Wanting to make sure that Nicole felt comfortable, I asked her if she had ever done something like this before.  I told her I’d be happy to initiate the conversation with the man with whom we were matched, if she would prefer, then hand it over to her.  My offer was sincere, if in retrospect somewhat naive.

“Oh no,” she said, “I used to visit my dad in a place just like this.  We would talk all the time… he lives in Mexico now.”  With that, a young man arrived at the place opposite our seats.  He smiled at Nicole, who smiled back, leaving the seat next to mine and walking calmly over to the telephone.  “Oh,” was all I could think to say before she left.

II.

I talk differently about my students than I do with my students and I don’t like that.  I can’t seem to describe them without falling back on language that doesn’t feel right as it comes out.  “Our school is about 55% Hispanic, 40% African-American, and 5% ‘other’,” I say, momentarily repeating words I’ve read on a brochure.  “Many of our students face tremendous challenges in their lives,” I add.  I sound more like a politician than a high school teacher.

It’s harder to talk about how my students relate to me.  It is an odd relationship, I suppose: I just turned 31 and they’re celebrating quinceañeras and sweet sixteens.  I’m a white Jesuit scholastic from outside Boston, they are Black, Hispanic, East African, and Southeast Asian, with lives that have brought them to Atlanta and its surrounding cities and towns.  I’m not practiced in explaining what kind of relationship overcomes those gaps.  At least not without resorting to cliches.

My mom helped me rehearse fielding questions about teaching once.  I had just finished my first semester at Cristo Rey and my first six months living in Atlanta.  It was Christmas, I was home in Massachusetts, and I was struggling.  I wasn’t comfortable with my new assignment yet: a feeling of wild incompetence characterized most days in the classroom, and I didn’t know how to speak about the impact that my students were having on my life.  I didn’t know what was mine to say.

I sat in the back seat of my parents’ car as my dad drove us to a family party.  My mom, knowing well that I don’t know how to say things halfway, helped me prepare some true but concise responses I might give to folks who inquired about my first year of teaching.  “You know what they say about first-year teaching,” I would say with a smile.  It helped.

The trouble with the way that I talk about my students is that it never seems to capture their depth.  Each one of them holds a significant place in my life.  More importantly, each one of them has a life of their own, and that’s what seems to fade into to the background as soon as I begin to speak.  Then I’ve done the very worst thing: I’ve shown them as glossy images on a school brochure.  Even the best brochures are only ever two-dimensional, no matter how flattering the pictures they contain.  Brochures can be set back down after a glance, a perfunctory “oh, how nice.”  Brochures don’t require responses.

My students don’t fit in a flat world.  They tell their stories with humor, courage, and liveliness; they show up each day with spontaneity, strength, and resiliency.  They’re surprising and complex, and their very presence makes a claim on me: that I see them for who they are, and that I recognize their three dimensions.

It was sometime between 5:55 and 6:10am on Friday, March 10 when I realized that I wasn’t letting my students live in three dimensions in my life.  I know this only because I made a note of it after my morning prayer.  That day I wrote simply: “March 10, Morning Prayer: My students need to write their own stories in their own voices.  They are the protagonists of their own lives.”  

A few weeks had passed since my lunch with Tori, and my initial feeling of discomfort had not gone away.  In fact, it had deepened.  What was sitting with me was how easily I reveled in the funny moments we shared in class – and Tori is just unthinkably funny1 – but how resistant I felt to follow her sadness, wherever it led.  I remember sitting in the chair in my room where I pray each morning, nauseous at the realization: I wasn’t letting Tori be Tori.  I was taking the parts that were easy for me to accept – happy to consider the laughs and think what a nice job I had – and leaving the rest at the periphery of my consciousness, if anywhere at all.

*    *    *

Anthony was walking to the door after Algebra class some weeks later when he turned back suddenly at its threshold.  “Hey, I love you,” he said, pointing back toward me as I sat at my desk.  His voice inflected up at the end of the statement; it seemed he was actually asking me if I already knew that.  My mind went a hundred different places: I was moved by Anthony’s confession even as I wondered what about this moment had prompted it.  I considered whether “I love you, too” was an appropriate response to a student; was I supposed to say that kind of thing?  

Anthony and I had been talking more about his life at home in free moments after class recently, and trust was certainly growing between us.  Nevertheless, that day seemed much like any other to me.  I considered my response in the fraction of a second that I had to decide.  “Thanks, Anthony,” I said, and I meant it.  “That means a lot to me.”  He smiled and left, seemingly relieved for having confirmed that I did, in fact, know that he loved me.  He was right: I did know that, somehow, even before he said it.  I loved him, too.

I turn this moment over in my mind for the hundredth time as I sit in my brother’s apartment in Boston, sipping a cup of coffee.  The school year is now a month behind me, and still I’m struck by the simplicity of the encounter.  Nothing heroic occurred on either of our parts.  No one swooped in and saved the day; nothing needed saving.  Anthony revealed to me his affection with exceptional care and vulnerability.  This was the moment he chose, this the setting.  Although it wasn’t a side of him I had encountered so explicitly before, this was Anthony, being himself.  Class was over for the day, and he had something to tell me.  He was being himself.

III.

It was the last day of classes before exams at Cristo Rey, and one of my classes had written on the whiteboard in the back of the room: “We’ll miss you, Mr. Nicholson!”  Tori’s class entered for the next period and high school chatter and excitement quickly turned to fear when she and her classmates read the note.  “You’re leaving, Mr. Nicholson?  I thought you said that you’d be here next year!”  I explained that the last class had only meant they would miss our time together in class, that I would indeed be present the next academic year.  

The fear subsided, but not without some residual looks of worry.  I was glad to ease their concerns in that moment even as I anticipated the same scene playing out the next year.  One more year, maybe two, and I would be leaving Cristo Rey to continue my Jesuit formation.  I wished in that moment I could tell them I would never leave, but that simply wouldn’t have been true.  It wouldn’t have been helpful, either; it was what I needed to say, not what they needed to hear.

In spite of all the data in the world, it’s hard to know for sure what’s happening in the classroom.  Frequently I wonder: how much are they learning?  Is it enough?  I ask these questions because my students deserve a truly excellent education.  

But, along with these questions, I am learning to add others.  Have I been as curious about my students as they have been of me?  Has each one held a place in my prayer?  Am I allowing them to change me?  Do they remain smiling faces in brochures or do I see them as the protagonists of their own lives – rich, three-dimensional characters who present themselves on their own terms?  While I’ve been busy asking these other essential questions, relationships of love and care have opened up before my eyes.  These are the “softer” questions of teaching, perhaps.  Still, I have been astounded by the way that the answers have mattered, to my students and to me.

*    *    *

One last anecdote: Brandon is naturally gifted at school, with work ethic to match his ability.  His ACT scores are through the roof, and he has a corny sense of humor that endears him to classmates and teachers alike.  Throughout the year, Brandon would wander into my classroom before or after school and share whatever was on his mind.  I could never quite tell what made Brandon walk in when he did.  

On one occasion he told me about winning a middle school science fair, on another he shared about an experience of subtle racism in his workplace that had really bothered him.  Brandon’s way of speaking was always the same: a bit singsong in a way that was friendly, but that I imagined was useful in providing safe distance.  It could be science fairs or racism, the delivery was the same, and it was for the listener to decide how to respond.

The day of the very last exam this year Brandon once again wandered into my room.  Students were milling about, cleaning out lockers and saying goodbyes.  I was distracted.  I get anxious in those situations, wishing I could attend to each person around me and overthinking every interaction that takes place.

“Are you gonna miss me, Mr. Nicholson?” Brandon asked with familiar, cultivated indifference.  I don’t know what happened next.  I heard the question and can picture Brandon, tall, mild-mannered, standing before me in a small crowd of students.  Perhaps someone else asked a question just a second after Brandon’s, perhaps I was taken aback by the directness of it.  Before I could respond, Brandon turned and started to walk away, leaving as unexpectedly as he had arrived.

I think that Brandon knows that I care about him.  We joke about the things he’s learning in school, like whether he could be the next Napoleon Bonaparte, but perhaps without dying on an island in the South Atlantic.  (He isn’t interested in the exile part of the gig.)  I love to see him and his teammates race by my classroom door when they stay after school to practice tae kwon do.  I’ve been so glad to meet his parents this year, kind people whose quirky personalities and intelligence leave no doubt where Brandon gets it from.  Brandon knows that I’m interested in his life, and so he wanders into my room once in a while to tell me about it.  I like that.

“Of course I’ll miss you, Brandon,” I said too forcefully after him.  I was afraid that the moment had passed.  Brandon turned back for a moment and offered a kind smile before continuing on his way out of the room and into the summer that awaited him.

Next year, I hope he’ll visit my classroom.  And I hope he’ll tell me something new about himself, however grave or ordinary.  Anything he wants to share will be fine by me.

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