On Students

On Students

A student emailed me that he took my advice about an essay-writing contest (“Put your true sincere heart onto the page,” I said or maybe something less sappy than that?) Whatever it was, he did it, and his essay won third place.

I love stuff like that. And I love it when students write to tell me about it, too. I save all the little thank you notes and stuff that students give me. It makes me feel like it matters, my teaching them. That I’m not just blabbering for nothing.

Another thing I like about teaching is the listening. Really, when you teach teenagers, you don’t have to do that much talking. I mean, at first you do, so they don’t get the impression that you’re a complete dummy as far as your subject area. But then, after all that junk, if you just let them speak, you don’t have to do anything beyond that. I suppose you could have a snappy answer or something. But mostly they just want to talk. Many of them even want to have a conversation, which is even more surprising.

When I was a teenager, I was very conscious of my conversational end of things. It wasn’t that I didn’t listen – I am amazing at being quiet and attentive, and it’s one of my huge peeves when people don’t shut up during classes or public assemblies or whatever – but I was acutely aware of my turn to talk and getting my story all ready to say and hoping it would come out properly. There was always the worry you’d share too much, or press too hard, making the teacher/adult lose his/her shit and report you or some other bullshit based on the Threat of the Permanent Record or Telling Your Parents.

I kind of love watching the gears turn on students faces as if they are doing the same, trying gauge what I’ll accept and what I’ll toss back into their faces.

Students always strike me as way more ambitious and earnest than I ever was.

Once a student told me his favorite book was David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. He was 14.

Once a student dropped my class because I admitted that I hated Shakespeare. She was 11.

Sometimes I’ll have students who talk all the time but damned if I can find a nugget of information in all their verbiage.

I love my students. I like to watch them just being their dorky weird young selves. But I’m never jealous of their youth. There is nothing idealized about all the striving and aspirations and braces-with-rubber bands and zits and hair in the in-between-growing-out stage and baby pudge and wimpiness and voices cracking and inability to small-talk and poorly applied make-up and the indignity of coming into a class late and everyone wheeling around to gape at you.

The way they have all their strident morals and philosophies and beliefs and seem ready to die for them.

The way they get all shy when their parents show up.

The way they try to look so grown-up, and in doing so, seem even younger.


  • Syntax and Salt on May 02, 2012 Reply

    I think the hardest thing with my kids has been transitioning from speaking frequently to listening more often. When they are little you are always explaining and showing and teaching with words and actions. As they get older and they start to want to talk about all of those things and other things the time to just shut up becomes more noticeable. Mine aren’t teenagers yet but when they are in the rapidly approaching future I hope they will still talk to someone. Even if it isn’t me.

  • Carrie on May 01, 2012 Reply

    I sort of stumbled into the listening thing. At first as a teacher, I tried to always have an answer. But when I was started teaching, I was 24 years old. What did I know – NOTHING! So scrabbling around for The Answer gave me an ulcer. Finally, I just stopped speaking. Just let them do all the talking, which they had no trouble with, filling in the silence with their thoughts. And not only was that easier – No Answer Required! – but it seemed to be what they wanted, too.

  • Ela on Apr 30, 2012 Reply

    Congratulations to your student, and to you! I love your tenderness toward these adolescents. Being aware of their humanness, their storiedness–must make teaching seem so valuable. And it is.
    I think allowing a person to feel listened to is one of the best gifts one can give.

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