I did not want to come to work Monday morning. After two days off to attend a professional conference followed by a week of Thanksgiving break with extended family, I was out of my routine, somewhat tired, had a head cold and was lacking in enthusiasm for my job. More importantly, though, I knew how difficult the days ahead would be.
Over the break, I’d learned that a young man I taught last year, a smiling, loving, energetic sixteen- year-old had died in an accident. This boy was not only my student, but the son and nephew of very good friends. My personal sorrow was great, and yet I was headed into a school full of shocked, hurting teenagers as well.
I drove myself to work mostly complaining but finally relinquishing a prayer asking for the desire to do my job and for wisdom in what to say or not to say. One of my first task on campus was to check my mailbox since I had missed the two days prior to the holiday break. I fully expected to stand there in the mailroom and empty the publishers’ catalogs and theatre company postcards into the trashcan before returning to my classroom. Instead, I found four letters. Thank-you letters from high school students. Apparently one of my colleagues had asked students to write thank-you letters to someone for the upcoming holiday.
As I read the notes, one in grape-flavored purple ink, another decorated with flowers and curlycues, for a moment I forgot all about not wanting to come to work. One student thanked me for remembering they were kids. ( How could I forget?) Another thanked me for respect. I saw in those letters I was holding in my hand the answer to my prayer. Suddenly, I wanted to see my students. I had missed them. We had lost one. Where else would I be today? They need me and I need them. The pain of loss makes it tempting to run, to avoid relationships, to avoid those connections and investments in each other; yet those vulnerable relationships are what make life worth living.
Teaching and learning only happen in the context of relationship. Spending almost an hour a day five days a week in each other’s presence changes both the teacher and student. Watching my students mature into college-bound young men and women gives me immense satisfaction, but sometimes the things I must do to help them mature are difficult. Discipline in the classroom is not pleasurable. Assessments can be excruciating if they aren’t passing. No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. The humor and energy of teenagers can be delightful; the drama, entertaining; the grief, almost unbearable.
I told one young man recently he needed to quit disrupting my sleep. He looked at me puzzled until I explained that I had awakened in the pre-dawn hours worrying about him because I knew he didn’t understand what we were doing in class. I wish at times I could shut it off, ‘it’ being the constant thinking about what one student needs or how to change a lesson to better suit a particular class or whether I handled a disciplinary issue correctly. Sometimes I am tired and I want to quit. I can’t keep my emotions out of my job no matter how hard I try because I am in relationship with these young people. It’s expensive, relationally speaking. But as those curlycued, fragrant letters reminded me, it’s also priceless.