No tears, thankfully, were shed in my classroom as this school year drew to a close. Some students certainly tried to cry, but I wouldn’t let them. Instead, I met them at their desks with blank pieces of paper. Make me something, I told them, so that I don’t forget you … unless this is how you want me to remember you.

By the time all five of my classes had submitted their final exams, I had a pile of assorted memorabilia so large that it repeatedly toppled over as I entered their grades in the afternoons. Their souvenirs varied from paper turtles to drawings of my stuffed hamster to acrostic poems of my name (though, for anyone who cares, it isn’t spelled “B-R-A-I-N”). Some students took the time to write me heartfelt letters, which, of course, were the most meaningful to me. But their contents were so surprising that I have needed to reread them several times to process them. They have made me wistful and nostalgic and, surprisingly, rather confused.

Mostly, my students wrote about how I’m a funny guy, and they recognized the fulfillment of an impossible paradox: simultaneously learning and having fun in math class. Many also thanked me for believing in them, claiming that I was the first to do so. “You helped me realize that not everyone is smart and talented, but everyone can reach great expectations,” one of my favorite students declared. Sometimes, she was frustrated because I found great fun in picking on her all year: I knocked her on the head whenever I passed by her desk, knowing she was too short to counter. But I recently let her in on a little secret: did you now that I only pick on students that I like? She responded with a (fittingly) petite smile, so brilliant as to complement the immaculate crown of flowers perched on her head. She’s hard not to love; she consistently earned the highest grade in her class and reliably answered the toughest questions whenever I cold-called her. So the quote above seemed a little strange to me, until I realized that I had forgotten where she started. At the beginning of the year — eons ago, it seems — she told me that she had never received good grades in math and that she hoped that this would be the year everything turned around. So maybe she didn’t grow much taller this year, but she is so much stronger of mind — the absolute strongest of heart.

But some of the most powerful letters came from the students that weren’t my favorites. One boy, who sometimes seemed to go out of his way to antagonize me, will have to repeat seventh grade after failing to earn any of the requisite credits for promotion this year. When he arrived to my class each day tardy, he promptly plopped his head on his desk and slept. But I wouldn’t have it. Several times throughout the year, I pulled him outside and looked him in his grotesquely yellow eyes — surely the result of malnourishment or the lack of sleep that comes with needing to care for his four younger siblings — and told him that I expected more from him. Sadly, these rousing conversations proved to be only temporary solutions, and whatever gusto he had gathered one day always disappeared the next. But instead of putting his head down after completing his final, he wrote, “You never let me down, [even] when I let you down.” His letter became too painful to read as he apologized for all the “bad moods” he had caused me. I glowered knowing I couldn’t respond. No, I was never angry with you; I was (and still am) angry with the contraption of societal dominoes that forced you into this predicament, and the fact that you have misconstrued that frustration as ad hominem means that I have, in fact, let you down.

Conferences like these were commonplace, and I have told all my students at some point that I believe in them, even when some situations seem less hopeful than others. Yet, as these letters helped me see, each interaction with my students, no matter how seemingly insignificant, was important.

On the eve of her final, a student messaged me online to tell me that she had lost her pencil and would need one for my exam. The next day, I brought her one of my favorite pencils, a gift from my father, who has always believed in me as much as I believe in her. With it, she penned me a letter recounting the realization that I was her favorite teacher. Apparently, I was her favorite teacher before we had even met; last year, she had watched me converse with my eighth-graders during passing periods, hoping she would one day be in my class. During registration months later, I was the one who handed her her schedule, and when I saw that she was in my class, I shook her hand and said, “I can’t wait to have you.”

This student and I talk all the time, online and in person. But somehow, I have absolutely no recollection of such a critical juncture in our relationship, in the same way that I have genuinely struggled to understand why my students like me at all. Talk about textbook irony: On the day that I gave my final lesson to my students — when, upon listening to me apologize for my shortcomings as a teacher, they erupted in tears — I checked my mailbox during lunchtime to find a wad of salmon-colored papers so fat that they broke the paper clip that held them together. These were votes that students across the school had cast for our annual teacher-of-the-year award. I received votes from students that I don’t even have, whose names I can’t match to any of the hundreds of faces I have seen passing through the hallways. What impossibly small spark that could kindle an endorsement so strong is unclear, even after scouring the deepest crevices of my brain to find them.

As far as I could tell, my students liked me for just three simple reasons: I managed to not act like an idiot, cracked a few jokes here and there, and made clear how much I care about them. “Just know that I love you,” a student reminded me. “I look at you like a friend, older brother, and a role model.” But as touching as her words are, they don’t seem to adequately justify my popularity as a teacher. Most people, I think, can explain how to add fractions correctly. And whether I can make clumsily timed poop jokes shouldn’t be relevant at all! So upon sifting through the memories that compose these past couple of years, I arrived at just one fundamental question: are my students so starved for empathy that merely giving a shit is sufficient to make me a good teacher?

Of course, we can leave it to my students to answer important questions about myself and, in that process, break my heart.

Though there are many reasons these letters have flummoxed me so profoundly, the most prominent one was not that my students recognized and appreciated the draconian expectations I set for them. These, after all, formed the basis for my reputation around the school. What I didn’t realize is that the only expectations that were greater than mine were theirs. And I’m not just talking about their expectations of themselves; I’m talking about their expectations of me.

The concept I’m trying to explain was found universally throughout these letters, but it is epitomized in the stories of two of my best students. Though they are female, they tower over me at around six feet in height. The consequent preponderance of jokes about my shortness certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed. In one of their yearbooks, I wrote, “Remain the giant that you are; the world needs more of you.” There is a purposeful duality of meaning in that caption, as she has the potential to be an intellectual giant as well. Somehow, she received a B in my class first semester without turning in a single homework assignment. When report cards were released, I asked her to speak with me after school. “I can’t have this crap,” I told her, “when I know that you should be getting A’s all the time. If no one else in your life pushes you, I will.” And, over the next several months, she did her homework and, frankly, well exceeded my original expectations. She indeed started to earn A’s in my class. In her letter to me, she thanked me for having high hopes for her, only to flip the table at her letter’s end: “I do have high hopes for you too!! Trying to help a lot more people than us, trying to make a huge difference in the world, is [sic] something great.”

The other student wrote me a letter, too, but it was riddled with spelling errors, double negatives, and subject-verb disagreements. She wasn’t accustomed to doing well in school, but she always stayed in my room after class to ask for help and correct old assignments and tests. By the end of the year, she didn’t need to anymore — her grade was in no danger of falling past an A-minus — but she came to my tutoring sessions anyway to help her classmates. She also wasn’t accustomed to crying, she told me tearfully after I announced my imminent departure. In an attempt to console her, I reminded her cryptically that she would see me again someday. I was simply implying that I would be back to visit next year, but her grin suggested a wider ambition. “I know,” she said. “I’ll see you on TV someday, after you go change the world.” I didn’t have the heart to correct her, and I hope that as I look back on my life someday, I won’t need to.

I’ve heard teachers remark that kids are only nice when they want something. In the past, I haven’t hesitated to ignore that cynicism, but in a strange way, they may have a point: Kids perpetrate, perhaps by accident, an incredibly elaborate long con. Since the first day of class, my students have been kind enough to believe as much in me as I have in them. Perhaps the reason is simply that I have been intellectually and financially privileged my entire life, and being a heterosexual, cisgendered Asian male doesn’t hurt. Or maybe it was something I said or something I did, regardless of whether I can remember it. But if my students love me, it is because they trust me, not just with their secrets and their stories, but with their futures. They want — they expect — me to be the one that will solidify them.

The realization that these children truly are counting on me, as will so many more people someday, shook me. So I hope you’ll forgive the lie: there were definitely tears as this school year drew to a close, as the room emptied and the lights dampened. Late in the afternoon of my final day of teaching, the room looked as it once did before my first. But to me, the vacant desks remained full to the brim with the many memories of those who had occupied them, the monochromatic walls bright with shades of the futures my students will one day forge for themselves and for us.

The tears — as has been this distinct honor — were all mine.

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