Caitlin and Savannah walk up to me during fifth period, Caitlin’s arm around Savannah’s shoulders. Sav has a look on her face that I recognize far too well. You know, that one where you smile so you don’t cry?
“That douchebag that was her boyfriend dumped her on her birthday! What the HECK is that?” Caitlin is Savannah’s best friend, and a damn good one. I adore these girls for a multitude of reasons, but particularly for their love of Christ and clean mouths. Those are two areas of weakness for me. It always makes me smile when Caitlin inserts school appropriate words the places I would choose a more enthusiastic alternative.
I look at Savannah, who isn’t wearing makeup today and is burying herself deep inside her hooded sweatshirt. I wrap my arms around her and pull her into me as her shoulders start to shake. Caitlin is going off on a tangent about this kid, but all I can think about is how heartbreaking it is to see Savannah heartbroken. I squeeze her tight and whisper things to make her relax and make her laugh, because sometimes laughter is the only cure for tears.
“He is an idiot, baby. Truly. As is probably every other teenage boy in this town. You are the biggest catch anyone could ever meet, and the next person should be running just trying to keep up with you.” She sobs again and whispers against my cream cardigan, “I thought he was different.”
I run my fingers through her hair and rock her as I think of the millions of times I’ve told myself the same thing. I thought he was different. “We always do,” is all I respond with. A minute passes and I give her a final squeeze and let her go, wiping the tears from her eyes with the sleeve of my sweater. “Hey,” I say, and she looks up at me with red eyes, “you’re here today, and we’re having a mellow one, so just relax and breathe. It’s going to be okay.” Sav nods and as Cat takes her back to her seat, Michael walks up to Savannah and gives her a hug. The words that come out of his mouth floor me. Something to the effect of, “you’re one of the most amazing girls I know.” I watch in amazement as Savannah laughs and returns the hug with a murmured “thank you.” He turns to me at the board and stares.
“What?!” he asks.
“I’m just… I’m so proud of you, Michael. You’ve come such a long way.” Michael, as much as I adore him, used to be a bit of a jerk. He gave no thought to how his comments might be interpreted by others and was constantly wreaking havoc on girls’ emotions and self-esteem. Over the course of a year, I have watched him work so hard at being a better, kinder, and more empathetic person. He succeeded.
I get everyone moving on their assignment and start to circle the room. Michael loves to sit up on the back counter while he works. He waves me over, and I peek at his AP T-shirt design, and then look up at his face. I can’t quite read his expression, but soon he answers my question by saying, “you almost made me cry up there. At the board. Telling me you were proud of me.”
I laugh and pat his knee. “Don’t cry! It’s true. You’ve come such a long way. Your heart has grown so much. I am proud of you.” Tears well in his eyes and I grin before walking away, knowing if I linger, I’ll cry, too.
Teaching isn’t just about the content. It’s about the context, being relevant and being true, being fair and just and always doing what is right for them and by them; it’s perfecting the practice of eliminating bias, prejudice, and stereotypes. It’s about being the mom and wiping away the tears and giving reassurance; it’s about being the boss and demanding more, pushing for more, because you know they are capable of doing more. It’s about real conversations: hard ones, easy ones, weird ones. It’s about being a good role model, a powerful and empowered teacher, a positive, influential force in every life you cross paths with. It’s being consistent, empathetic, and kind, even when you really, really don’t want to be.
There’s this funny image I found once on Pinterest of a Golden Retriever. Across the picture it says “be the person your dog thinks you are.” I believe my mantra has become “be the woman your kids think you are.” Of all the people they could idolize, what if they chose someone who was good and honest and stood up for what they believed in and those they loved?
Every day that passes is a quiet confirmation that I am in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Saturday, the JV Volleyball girls had a tournament. Three of my girls play on the JV team, but one of them in particular, Amber, is just this radiant gem of a human being. I mean, holy shit, that is a child who will cherish every interaction, every gift she is given, seize every opportunity that comes her way, will challenge herself and everyone around her while always moving onward and upward. She has one of the kindest spirits I have ever encountered. I have the insane gift of teaching her twice a day this year (swoon!) and told her I was going to come to her matches.
So Saturday I show up and sit in the stands with her momma. It’s easy to tell where Amber’s sweet spirit came from, because her entire family is a group of saints. We chat about how Amber is doing, if she’s enjoying her classes, the norm, when her mom looks to me and says, “Amber really loves you. She’s so excited about having art twice a day!” I laugh.
“I know! It’s so wonderful! I feel really spoiled!” In my head, I acknowledge that most anyone would love having art twice a day.
“What colleges have good art education programs? Amber has made up her mind that she wants to be an art teacher just like you.” My heart does a little dropkick against my sternum and tears find my eyes hard and fast, stinging like mad. Is this what it feels like? I never in my life thought I could love a job as much as I love mine. And now, to hear from a mother, than their daughter wants to take on that same path is the most exciting, flattering and moving thing I could ever imagine. This is exactly why I do it: to let my kids know they bring me joy, that they can make a difference, and that it is okay to love everything about your life and everything about your job. People think it’s about money and excessive comfort and having the things that you want. Bullshit. It’s being present where you are and loving everything you have and letting that be enough. They will always be more than enough for me.
We will take on the world, one paintbrush, one canvas, one unit exam, and one bad break up at a time. Through it all, my kids know who has their back, and that I love them for exactly who they are right now and everything they might become in the future.
Stand your ground. It’s sacred.