I was reminded today of the potential for positive influence that the teacher's position holds. A former student sent me a message on Facebook. It was a shot in the dark for him; the tone of the message made it clear to me that he wondered if I would even get it. My former student just wanted me to know what he was studying and that several of his classmates spoke of me and their former school from time to time. He reeled off their names and asked me if I remembered them.
Oh my. If they only knew. I remember one class in particular when I ventured out into 'full frontal disclosure' after a discussion about the dichotomy of science and religion; or their perception of the dichotomy. I wrote a long essay after that class about how deeply their questions touched me. This is an excerpt:
This day was nothing less than the best teaching day of 2006-2007. My students know my weaknesses and so during a lesson about the role of truth in fantasy fiction and an allusion to the Book of Job, they pleaded for a digression they knew I would gladly give. I spoke of Job, about not blaming God for our misfortunes and the world’s evil, about the place of ‘absolutes’ in a world of relativity and especially, about their own questions. I told them that I knew these questions were a part of their life, even if some of them were only half conscious of them. I spoke directly to two students about to embark on the “March of the Living” through the ruins of the concentration camps where they will certainly see the horrific face of human evil. I pleaded the case for faith and the solidity of ancient traditions as a source for possible answers to questions I know will wound them. Evil is ugly, it’s horrific and it feels like an encounter with the ‘other’ because it’s so huge. Are they ready for this?
They were so silent. Then, slowly their hands came up and they spoke. “Miss, science is comforting because it gives us answers. Religion is scary because it only gives us more questions.” This is from a sixteen year old girl who idealism and tenderness makes me want to weep with joy. I told her that she was brave and that I understood. I told her that she was doing a good job looking for truth because if she simply ‘bought’ a bill of goods that felt wrong to her, it would not be an authentic journey.
“But how do we know?” “What do we do?” “What is true?” Their questions are sweet stabs to my heart and it takes focus not to weep openly. What a blessing they are to me. What a privileged position I have. They look at me and ask, “Miss, what do you believe?” I tell them that if I could, I’d take them all out in a canoe on the lake and paddle for days. I’d take them on a very long hike, walk until we find the perfect tree and then sit up against it, feeling the bark rough against us. I’d show them that beauty is a perfect place to begin to find their own answers and that I hope someone will be there to help them. They deserve that.
I went out on a limb in that class. I didn't regret my transparency but I did wonder about what they must have thought of their crazy teacher.
Learning, growing and taking your place as a young adult in the world is more than mastering languages, math and sciences; it's also about entertaining the big questions about life. As teachers, we often forget the impact that we potentially have to help our students engage in tackling these big questions. Their parents are the first ones to teach them how to wrestle with these hard questions but we, their teachers are the next in line. It gives me great satisfaction to think (and continue to hope) that in some small way I have contributed to that noble endeavor. Yes, I remember them well. I also remember their questions, the look in their eyes and the anguish in their voices when they clearly expressed their desire to know the truth. They look to their parents, and their teachers, to help them find the way. It's important for teachers to remember the power of their role. Thanks for the reminder guys.