No tears, thankfully, were shed in my classroom during the waning moments of the school year. Some students certainly tried, but I didn’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 you want my last memory of you to be of you crying.
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, my first name isn’t spelled “B-R-A-I-N”). Some students took the time to write me heartfelt letters, and, of course, these 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 made me wistful and nostalgic and, most importantly, really confused.
Mostly, they wrote about how I’m a funny guy, and they recognized the fulfillment of the impossible paradox of 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 eloquently declared. She sometimes 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 because she’s too diminutive to knock on mine. Recently, I let her know that I only picked on students that I liked. In response, she revealed a perfect smile; her head was adorned with a crown of flowers so deftly arranged that no other adjective would do her justice. She’s hard not to love: she consistently earned the highest grade in her class and reliably answered the toughest questions whenever I called on her to give myself a confidence boost. As a result, the quote above seemed a little strange to me, until I realized that so much time has passed these last few months that I had forgotten where she started. At the beginning of the year, she wrote that she had never received good grades in math and that she hoped that this would be the year everything turned around. Maybe she didn’t grow much taller this year, but she is so much stronger of mind and the absolute strongest of heart.
But some of the most powerful letters came from students that not only weren’t my favorites, but also seemed to go out of their way to antagonize me. One boy 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 the eyes — glassed over in a grotesque shade of yellow, 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, rousing conversations like these proved to be only temporary solutions, and whatever gusto he had gathered one day never failed to disappear 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 this whole messed up situation that has put you in this predicament, and the fact that you have misconstrued that frustration as a personal attack 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. I already miss them.
On the eve of her final, a student messaged me online 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 to help me start this school year on the right foot. 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 watched me converse with my eighth-graders during passing periods, hoping that 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 apparently shook her hand and said, “I can’t wait to have you.” From that moment on, she knew I would be her favorite teacher.
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. 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 couldn’t match to any of the hundreds of faces I saw passing through the hallways. What impossibly small minutia I did for them is unclear, and I searched even the deepest crevices of my brain to find them, trying to process the characteristics that made me different from their other teachers.
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 explicated constantly 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, I think they set the wrong bar for me as her teacher. The matter of content expertise would be considered differently if I taught, perhaps, a high-school calculus course, but I have spent much of this year just making sure that my seventh-graders know how to divide correctly. Meanwhile, whether I can make clumsily timed poop jokes shouldn’t be relevant at all. So upon sifting through my experiences these past couple of years, I settled on one basic question: are students like mine 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 flummoxed me so profoundly, the most prominent one was not that my students recognized and appreciated the high expectations I set for them. After all, I always made a big deal about my draconian standards, and most of my students demonstrated substantial growth because of them. 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 theme I’m trying to explain was found universally throughout these letters, but I want to share two specific examples, both from top students. Both of these girls tower over me at around six feet in height. The preponderance of jokes about my shortness certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed throughout the year. In one of their yearbooks, I wrote, “Remain the giant that you are; the world needs more of you.” But even when we exclude the literal sense of the word, 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 submitted exemplary project deliverables that well exceeded my original expectations. She did indeed start earning A’s in my class. In her letter to me, she thanked me for having high hopes for her, but she flipped 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 a letter, too, but it was riddled with spelling errors, double negatives, and subject-verb agreement issues. 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 stay after school anymore: she could submit perfect classwork without my help, and her grade was so high that she came to my tutoring sessions after school just to help her classmates. She also wasn’t accustomed to crying, she told me tearfully after I announced my imminent and permanent departure. In an attempt to console her, I reminded her that she would see me again someday, implying that I would be back to visit next year. But before I could finish my sentence, she smiled. “I know. I’ll see you on TV someday, after you go change the world.”
I’ve heard teachers remark that kids are only nice when they want something from you. In the past, I haven’t hesitated to ignore that cynicism, but in a strange way, they might have a point. From 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 that I said or something that I did, regardless of whether I can remember or identify it. But if my students love me, it is because they can 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 and paralyzed me. Indeed, I lied; there were definitely tears during the waning moments of the school year, as the room emptied and the lights switched off. After everyone had left, the room looked as it did before my first day of teaching, but past the vacant desks and monochromatic walls, all I could see were the memories, the bounty of teaching moments that benefited me as much as them.
The tears — as has been this distinct honor — were mine.