Teacher Love

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Teacher Love

I have been a teacher for 25 years. When I started teaching at a small, cozy independent school in the Hudson Valley of New York, I was a young woman in her twenties, newly married, fresh out of graduate school. I was so young that the stress of being in class the first year gave me pimples. Now the stress just keeps me from sleeping and makes my hair fall out. Not sure which is worse. In any case, it doesn’t matter how stressful the job is — and there’s a lot of it. My work feeds my soul and one of the reasons is my students. During those years, I taught a lot of young people—sixth, seventh, and eighth grade.

It was a wonderful time, during which the kids were sure to become who they were going to be one day. Yes, humans are “themselves,” even babies, toddlers, and floppy-haired second graders, but in middle school their faces, brains, and bodies begin to morph unbelievably, making them Be an “adult”.

I know because I do my best to keep track of my students. I saw the “after” (in many stages) and can clearly remember the “before”.

At the end of my first year of class, there wasn’t any history yet. I’m a real newbie at this. I was surprised—shocked, in fact—by my sense of loss. After graduation, I cried on and off all weekend. I’m just beginning to understand what I call “teacher love”. Like “maternal love”, it sneaks into your heart and takes over your heart.

Maybe you don’t realize that we teachers love our students. I don’t mean that God loves the nameless humans who worship her or him in an abstract, benevolent way. I mean, we are people who love every child. We know them very well. We see them. We feel their joy and pain, and all those anxious struggles that play out in the classroom. Through the chaos, hustle, and hard work of the day, we absorb the soul of each child as if by osmosis. Teachers can gain a deeper and more accurate understanding of their students than facts alone could predict.

And in a very real way, they absorbed us too. That’s why I’ve always known how important my work is. Not only am I teaching kids how to think critically, write well, and read deeply, I’m building relationships with them. If I’m not careful, I could really screw the kid up.A teacher may be someone who loves (and praises, disciplines, encourages, and scolds) like a human being, but we have enormous power over these little people, our words and actions, are merely looks like Can be with them for a lifetime. I know. They have told me.

I once had a student equate my approving glances with “a glimpse of God.” That definitely gave me pause.

So last week I took the commuter train into town to meet some of my former students at an alumni event on the Upper East Side. The chance to be face to face with these adults in 5, 10, 15, 20 years is delicious. There’s a charming irony to the guy I once had to allow a beer to go to the bathroom.

My face started to hurt after the first hour. I couldn’t hide the happy smile on my goofy face. I hear them say, “You haven’t changed at all!” and want to laugh at the absurdity. What they mean is, “It’s you! I recognize you everywhere.” I can say the same to them. No longer a child, but affirming and positively being yourself.

When they were 12, 13, 14 years old, their faces were there and it was clear. No matter how much time passes, that face is still there. Slanting eyes, a toothy grin. The boy’s soft jaw was carved into a strong line. The clumsiness of a girl turns into the beauty of a woman. The lively childlike innocence has turned into a confident warmth.

I’m tall — almost 5’10” — but I spend a lot of time at these parties looking up at the men who used to put their heads on my shoulders when they used to hug their teachers. Last week, Brendan, passionate, funny, and above me. He and his classmate Eliza joined me in recalling the torture I inflicted on them during my second year of teaching. We all laughed. As hard as I was on them, sometimes expecting more than they could deliver, for some reason they and I fondly remember this experience. I think we’re having fun too. In eighth grade, we made a movie. Brendan wrote the screenplay and directed. We shot on location and had a dance party and there was a lot of laughter between takes. Brendan is now an independent filmmaker and he gave some credit to that experience 23 years ago, which makes me feel Delighted and humbled.

Some of my former students teach. This is one of the cutest comments a teacher can receive. Eliza became a teacher and a good friend. Her kids are now at school and we sometimes get together for dinner or a cold beer on a summer afternoon. We never have anything to say, and I pay little attention to the strange reality that the child I taught her to proofread comma-stitched essays is now a mother, a woman, a teacher like me, with opinions, beliefs, Passion and belief in common.

I met Alex, a talented, soft-spoken young woman who surprised us 15 years ago with her musical talent when she plugged in her guitar and pulled it out with her tiny hands loud voice. Now she supports herself with her music. I chatted with Byron, who sells high-end Manhattan real estate. He was a toddler, as if it wasn’t that long ago, but that grinning boy is now a grown man, navigating the big city/big kid world with cool confidence.

It’s not even about pride, although I feel a lot about it. It’s just a sense of fulfillment, affection, and love. Some of these beloved students have found themselves. Some people are still a bit lost. Some people are happy. Some people are miserable. Some share. Some evasive. It’s all in my heart.

Permele and Emilie head to a downtown party 80 blocks away after get off work. They lined up for me in the gallery space, and one of them said, leaning in for a hug: “We’re coming to see you.”

When I look at their beautiful, youthful faces and big smiles, and listen to their excited words, I am filled with emotion. I hope they will be there. “No,” I thought. “I’m here to see you.”

The people I have taught have interested me, inspired me, made me think and laugh because they were charming, intelligent people and I was lucky enough to know them. When I first became a teacher, I didn’t realize that I was making a lifelong commitment to every student I ever taught. I figured I’d go to the ends of the earth and share laughs, beers, and good stories with any of them.

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