No tears, thankfully, were shed in my classroom as this school year drew to a close. 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, 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, most importantly, really 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 know that I only picked on students that I liked. She responded with a (fittingly) petite smile, so brilliant as to perfectly complement the deftly arranged crown of flowers adorning her consummate coiffure. 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 whole set 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 my father gave me to 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 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 fail to explain my teaching ethos. 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 of 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 she smiled with a sweeter sentiment. “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. 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 replete with memories of those who had occupied them, the monochromatic walls bright with shades of the future my students will one day forge for them and for us.

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

The following is a rough transcript of my final lesson — not just for this school year, but for the foreseeable future:

As you know, the year is coming to a close, and today is our last lesson together. For my final act, I would like to take things in a different direction and teach you something that’s a bit unorthodox. It has nothing to do with math, but everything to do with life.

Today, we will learn how to properly shake hands.

Before you scoff at such a basic concept, consider how often you have actually shaken my hand this year. The answer, for convenience’s sake, is never. When you enter the room, we bump fists, but never do we exchange regular, old-fashioned handshakes. Some of you have tried, and, in response, I usually just walk away. And when you ask why, I say that it’s because you’re a child, so you have germs and you are dirty. But that’s not really an honest answer, particularly when, as an adult, my hands contain roughly as many germs as yours.

The truth is that I just haven’t felt that you’re ready for it. Look at all of you shaking hands with your friends, mocking me; none of you are doing it right! So we’re having this lesson today so that we don’t have this problem in the future. First, I’ll need a volunteer …

Outline:

  • Avoid sweaty hands; subtly wipe hand across side of pant leg on the way up to meet other person’s hand. Emphasis on the word “subtle.” Don’t spank yourself; just glide your hand over your pant leg.
  • Don’t over- (the “soul-crushing grip”) or under-grab (the “Magikarp”). Exercise enough strength to show you’ll step up to the plate but enough restraint to show you can keep yourself in check.
  • Make only one up-and-down motion, unless you need to buy time for a photo op. There are no such things as second impressions because your first one should be so damn good that you don’t need a second one. Flex upper arm as you shake to guarantee firm shake, with slight half-inch tug on the downward motion. Lean upper body slightly into the shake.
  • Guided practice: 30 seconds, shake with partner, rate on scale of 1-10, provide constructive feedback, shake again, switch roles, then ask students to return to seats quietly and quickly

Handshakes are a little more complicated than you thought, aren’t they? Sooner or later, all of these steps will feel natural, but until then, it requires a lot of concerted energy to remember each one. This deceiving complexity is the reason I have refused so adamantly to shake your hands all year.

Think back to when you greeted your friends in the courtyard this morning, probably with hugs or really elaborate routines that might contain a handshake somewhere only to be adulterated with unnecessary gestural garnishes. That exact temptation to overindulge is the issue: it’s childish. And it has been my belief this year that you are children, not adults. You shouldn’t be greeted like them.

But there was a day in mid-April — this timing I will explain later — when I was forced to reexamine this assumption. At the core of the matter, I decided to re-investigate the definition of adulthood.

By pretty much any known definition, you are nowhere close to being adults. Even in the most informal sense, it is my understanding that adulthood is bestowed upon a person when he or she turns a certain age, depending on what you consider adulthood’s operative privilege. For example, you can get your driver’s permit when you’re fifteen and a half, join the military when you’re eighteen, and legally purchase alcohol when you’re twenty-one. Whether you are ready for adulthood and its fruits, you receive them upon crossing some particular numerical threshold.

Thus the temptation to navigate your lives from one milestone to the next is strong, despite how adults so fiercely admonish you. Many, including me, have warned you not to grow up too fast, because we are ultimately jealous of you. While you get to have a lot of fun as an adult, it comes with a price tag, heavily laden with responsibility. I would bet that around April each year, you listen to your parents groan about paying taxes, and you have to pay bills for things like water and utilities that you basically get to take for granted. And it kind of sucks.

But if I told you that those problems encapsulated the full extent of adult suckiness, then I would be lying to you and thus failing at my job of preparing you for adulthood. If we define “adult problems” as problems that require an adult mentality to solve, then the realm of such problems is much bigger. Many adults have children that they struggle to raise, and, worse yet, they are occasionally unexpected. Some adults are thrust into the position of man-or-woman of the household because of the failures of other adults, and that’s when you realize that every step you take and every action you make are being closely watched by someone that matters. And adults often have to do terribly boring and uninteresting work to pay those bills, even if that means they have to work more than one job.

Here’s the problem: I am familiar with all of these sorts of adult problems not because I have an active imagination, nor did I suffer through most of these problems myself. In fact, I didn’t even get these from my other adult friends. The truth is that these stories … are your stories.

Many of you come from households where you are totally independent: you are responsible for feeding yourselves and taking yourselves to school. Others work jobs after getting out of school, even when “employment” is colored in a darker shade of grey. And you have been tasked with being a role model for a younger sibling because even if you don’t know how, you definitely know you don’t want them ending up like your parents. After all, for some of you, your parent — or parents — walked out on you a long time ago.

It seems a little strange to call those problems “adult problems” when they’re more tragic than the problems most adults ever have to face. And therein lies the core of the dilemma: throughout the course of the year, many of you have asked me not just why I became a teacher, but why I specifically became a teacher here. And I’ve told you a lot of things, all of which are true: you come from a low-income, low-opportunity community; you have been screwed by bad luck; you need to see what real success looks like so that you can better understand the potential of the human experience. But perhaps the best answer is that you face a unique situation, one that can only be found in communities like ours. You straddle the line between childhood and adulthood, and it’s not totally clear where you lie. While society labels you as a child based on the size of your body and, perhaps, the size of your mind, it neglects the size of your problems. So are you a child, or are you an adult?

If you ask me, the value of one’s life is measured not by the number of years he has lived on this earth, but by the number of fires he’s put out, the number of lives he’s saved, and the number of problems he’s solved. So in my opinion, even if every legal definition says that you are a child, every definition that actually means anything says that you must be an adult.

And when I use the word “must,” I mean it in two ways. One is that, as a logical consequence of the argument I’ve laid out, you are adults thanks to your adult-sized problems. But I also mean that because of those adult-sized problems, you have to learn to respond to them like the adult that your age suggests you’re not. Your community, your friends and family, and you most of all depend on it.

Consequently, heed my parting words. Consider more carefully this dilemma. Society has duped you so deeply into believing that you are mere children that most of you choose to confront adult problems as children would. You let them approach, and you hope that if you cower under your bed, they will just magically disappear and your life will turn out just great. After all, the things that you dislike about this school are byproducts of choices you didn’t make. You didn’t get to choose the school you attend or the parents to whom you were born or the zip code in which you live. Yet the results of those choices affect each and every one of you all the time.

So my final lesson to you is this: whether you like it or not, it’s time to grow up as fast as your problems do, because it is a myth that you can’t solve them, even if you didn’t cause them.

Growing up is not easy, nor is it very specific. Perhaps it means embracing responsibilities that, as some of you have learned via familial functions, extend beyond the manifestation of your own aspirations into the lives of others around you. Or maybe it’s about accepting failure and the scary notion that your life is not perfect and probably never will be, acknowledging that it is only through our mistakes that we can become better. Or maybe it’s about realizing that the freedom of adulthood doesn’t have to be abused with reckless abandon, because it could be the reason we get to be something someday or the reason we get to be nothing.

You have to realize that this lesson isn’t like the rest of the ones you’ve seen from me this year. For me, this isn’t at all like teaching you to calculate the surface area of a rectangular prism or to convert a fraction into a percent. In those examples, I taught you content I mastered eons ago. But the content of this particular lesson isn’t something I know that well. In fact, I’m still in the process of learning it. And do you know who taught it to me? It wasn’t all those big problems I had growing up, because I was riding on my training wheels until college, which was the first time I ever had to make an even remotely important decision about anything. It was you, in what has been undoubtedly the most important year of my life.

Yes, indeed! For all the commotion that we can make about my “advanced age” of twenty-three or the fullness of my résumé, I still have an awful lot of growing up to do. But it is precisely because I still have so much growing up of my own to do that after next week, I will no longer be a classroom teacher. Not here, not anywhere.

If growing up is about embracing the vast scope of our responsibilities, then I would say I’ve come a long way these past couple years. When I got my Stanford degree, my original intent was to make a bunch of money and be happy. But these days, I have found that my responsibility is about more than my own happiness or my own financial stability. It’s about making sure that the one hundred and fifty kids that I met this year can find their happiness and their financial stability on their own someday. Make that three hundred if you consider the students I taught last year. And even if I somehow have succeeded on all three hundred counts, there are over three hundred thousand people across this city, three hundred million people across this country, and billions more around the world to whom I owe something for reasons I can’t explain. That qualifies as an adult problem, too, doesn’t it?

For anyone who cares, I’ll be moving to Chicago next year to attend graduate school. Long story short, I’ll have three master’s degrees by the time I’m twenty-six years of age. Not bad for your goofy ol’ math teacher, huh? The magnitude of this opportunity has not at all been lost on me, however, and while I don’t know exactly what I’m doing with all those degrees yet, I realize that they makes me uniquely privileged to serve as your vanguard, as an advocate not just for you, but for your families and your little brothers and sisters that will face your same predicaments someday and, undoubtedly, your sons and daughters. There’s no question that I have a lot of work to do!

Such a fact becomes obvious as I, too, begin to truthfully and painfully own up to my failures. Two years ago, I stepped foot into this classroom with the childish and naive dream that I would save three hundred children. Today, I would be lying if I said I succeeded. I think about how I felt disgraced when I lost my patience with some of you individually, even though I vowed that that would be the one thing I would never do. I think about how many of you entered this year believing you would get an F in my class and have remained there with such deplorable languor; I never gave you the strength to get out. I am deeply appreciative of all your kind words, and when I feel down, you haven’t hesitated to reassure me that I’m a great teacher. But I sure don’t feel that way most days. I am humbled by those teachers who figure things out and become great at what they do, because I am sure I’m not one of them. Regardless of whether you believe me, you deserve someone better than I, and that’s one reason I’m leaving.

But let’s also talk about the many things that are not reasons I’m leaving. It’s true that I am often frustrated and angry here, something that I sometimes struggle to hide. What you might not realize is that when the final bell has rung and you have all left, I have on more than one occasion buried my head into my arms and cried, because how else does one cope with the feeling of not knowing what the fuck he’s doing? But I am not leaving you because I am disheartened or because I have lost faith in you. To quite the contrary, I am leaving because I believe in you. This year, I have seen you not just for the children that you are, but the leaders you could be someday, and these visions inspire enough confidence in me to walk from this place unperturbed. Next year, you will be the leaders of this school, and little sixth graders will be looking up to you, both metaphorically and literally. And you will not forget my words, whether they relate to math or to life. Our school will be left in good hands; that’s how I know this school doesn’t need me anymore. I feel no qualms.

But more importantly, you absolutely must understand that I’m not leaving because I hate you. Again, the truth is quite the opposite: I’m leaving because I love you. I love you in ways that escape words, though I assure you that I love you more than any hypothetical girlfriend I’ve had. Though it might be hard to believe, you’ve taught me more than I could ever teach you, even if you didn’t mean to.

So on that day in mid-April, when I was deciding whether to submit my enrollment deposit and therefore void my return to this classroom next year, I struggled to make the decision to tear myself away from you. I wanted to stay with you so badly that I thought about asking to teach eighth grade so that I could be by your side just one more year. And that’s how I arrived at the question of adulthood. Part of growing up, I suppose, is learning to stand strong while saying goodbye to the people that you love. And, I guess, this long, roundabout address is the best I could do.

As your seventh-grade math teacher, I only have one last request to make of you: as you walk out my door, consider shaking my hand. But before you get too excited to do so, you should know what it means; when you do, you may decide you no longer want to shake my hand. Shaking hands, after all, is for adults only. Of course, whether you shake my hand or not, you will still be plagued by adult problems the minute you leave this room. And if you would rather cling to the notion that they will disappear simply because you wish it as a child would upon a shooting star, then don’t shake my hand. There’s nothing wrong with that choice. If you’re lucky, you’re right and you save yourself some trouble. Even if not, you become ready on your own terms and in your time.

So if you shake my hand, you acknowledge not only the magnitude of the problems that you face, but also the importance of standing up to them and fixing them. You understand that even if choices outside your control have put you in your current predicaments, only the choices inside your control can take you out of them. And, of course, I likewise make that commitment to you, as a handshake goes both ways. When we take each other’s hands, we reciprocate in the indelible truth that we both have an awful lot of work to do.

Take a couple minutes to think about it. I’ll be waiting for you at the door, along with the rest of our lives. Thank you for having me as your teacher this year; it has been an immense honor. I’ll see you on the other side.

As some of you know, I will leave the classroom this June to attend the University of Chicago, where I will concurrently pursue a Master of Public Policy and a Master of Business Administration. When considering that I already have my Master of Education, in addition to my totally unrelated and equally unfocused bachelor’s degree, the multitude of questions I’ve received regarding my future plans makes sense. In response, I offer an excerpt from one of my public policy admissions essays, submitted to a school that very generously offered me a full scholarship. (Keep in mind there is a word limit, so I apologize if the writing seems a little choppy.) For what it’s worth, since no one edited my essays, you’ll be among the first to read this one!

The prompt, paraphrased for succinctness: Address the areas of your past, present, and future, in addition to supplying whatever information you think may help us to understand your candidacy more fully.

A student of mine – twelve years of age, female, African American – has been particularly dramatic lately. Some difficulty was to be expected, as she has been classified as “severely emotionally disturbed.” Even so, she has proved especially difficult in recent days; she insists on sitting in different parts of the room and yells incessantly when met with rejection, resting only when taking tests, which cause her to shut down completely. I have discussed the cause of these problems at length with her other teachers, only to conclude that her home life is a stressful one.

Only recently did I begin to truly understand the extent of her troubles.

A council of special education teachers and psychologists invited me to an annual review of her Individualized Education Plan, a meeting to which both she and her parents were invited. When they didn’t show up, the grimaces around the table betrayed everyone’s lack of surprise, which made me feel as if I were eavesdropping on the passing of an inside joke. I was shocked by how low their expectations were until, out of the corner of my eye, I saw one teacher attempt fruitlessly to withhold her tears. Eventually, she must have noticed that I was staring at her with concern, as she started to explain herself without a prompt.

This girl – E, we’ll call her – has lived in the care of her stepmother for the past couple of years. But a month ago, her father was released from prison. Since then, he has been especially belligerent, which explains a memo cautioning me against calling her house. The problem has been exacerbated by her birth mother’s even more recent release from prison, which has angered her father so gravely that he threatens to move his family to California on a nigh hourly basis. Meanwhile, this girl, who despite the confrontation of adult problems remains very much a child, struggles to decide where to call home: her native city of Las Vegas, or the unknown destination that will house her solitary moving box, the vessel of all her earthly possessions?

We have been unable to offer her much in the way of services because her legal guardian has been, until recently, incarcerated. But my co-teacher did give her a backpack a few weeks ago to replace a tattered purse that was too small to carry books. She wept a cocktail of emotions.

———

Stories like E’s make me feel like I’m not doing enough to serve the children of my community, no matter how we glorify the impact a teacher can have on a child’s life. The fact that their resolutions can lie so far outside my control is not an excuse, but rather a lingering reminder of my limitations. Even during the rare times it is executed perfectly, an hour with me can only do so much to guide my students through the hazards of the next twenty-three.

Once, I would not have hesitated to indict the society that houses my children, a system riddled with rusty cogs all over. E’s story, for example, has reached this point only by stumbling over the myriad hurdles set by her family, her community, and her public representatives. And it would be remiss of me to exonerate myself as I dispassionately scrawl an “F” on her paper without contemplating more carefully how I could serve her better. It makes me wonder whether I have stayed true to the reasons I became a teacher.

———

Before I stepped into the classroom, I had planned to become a product manager somewhere in the tech industry. While some exhilaration was guaranteed in the industry that epitomizes the pushing of the modern envelope, it was tempered by how miniscule my achievements felt. Even when I worked on Microsoft Office, one of the world’s most ubiquitous products, I never figured my work would matter.

Although each phase of my undergraduate career offered challenging problems, I struggled to care about their solutions, even if I didn’t see at the time how instrumental they were to my personal development. These projects sharply honed my problem-solving and analytical skills; few things are more satisfying than successfully debugging a web application so daunting that only the rising sun reminded me of the hours that have passed. And, as an executive member of multiple organizations – such as Stanford’s senior class government and the country’s largest collegiate entrepreneurship competition – I became comfortable with the high-stakes decision-making that I find so useful in my job today. Undoubtedly, the penchant for innovation that I developed through my project-based education, including an ed-tech startup, has made me eager to experiment with novelty in a profession dominated by tradition.

But I couldn’t escape the feeling that my work did little to ameliorate the world’s most glaring — its most real – problems. Upon graduation from college, the assurance of a lucrative bounty, in counterintuitive fashion, actually made me feel less comfortable about my impending career decisions. People born less fortunate than I – like my brother, a boy whose crippling intellectual disabilities remind me that my education is my ammunition to fight more for him than for myself – don’t get to choose their genes, their zip codes, or their schools. And I am aware that I am the beneficiary of immensely good fortune, having suffered from none such throes.

Most reasonable people, no matter how entrenched in privilege they are, can and should acknowledge that the gorge that separates the fortunate and those considerably less so expands each year, and each moment I fail to spend countering it only perpetuates it.

———

As a math teacher at one of the lowest-performing middle schools in Nevada, I was suddenly immersed in the inequity I hoped to combat. In a state that evaluates proficiency only in the core subjects, I play a particularly prevalent role in my students’ futures. Last year, many of my eighth-graders didn’t know their times tables, nor could they add without counting on their fingers. (They often counted incorrectly.)

I became one of my school’s only math tutors, opening my classroom to upwards of forty kids at a time. It has become a fixture for many students and their friends, including former students now in high school. And, as the only teacher in the department that speaks Spanish, I have offered bilingual tutoring, crucial at a school where a quarter of the students possess limited English proficiency.

The hard work has paid off: by the end of my first year, my growth data outstripped those of a department entirely comprising veteran teachers. Consequently, my administration hasn’t hesitated to place me in leadership positions, from an appointment to a district-wide “super committee” of math teachers to a nomination as an exemplar for college students who aspire to be educators.

But I quickly realized that my students need more help than what I can offer in the classroom. Almost three-fourths, for example, need our Free and Reduced Lunch program. E is hardly the only student whose most prominent struggles reside outside my domain.

Although I have explored several avenues that lead beyond the boundaries of my classroom – from basketball games to orchestra concerts, from helping to charter the student incentive committee to analyzing achievement data throughout the school – I am proudest of the debate team I started. After debate saved my own life once, I knew it could save my students’, too. And, thus far, they have delivered: they have notched wins against high school teams and solidified a name for our school in Las Vegas’s competitive scene. They have debated everything from the Keystone pipeline to universal healthcare, policy anathema that they have handled with more aplomb than most adults I know. It reminds me that leaders can be found even where we don’t expect them.

———

Yet when I see E’s face and hundreds more each day, I still can’t help but think I haven’t done enough. I feel powerless, stymied by socioeconomic factors that I as a teacher am incapable of defeating. I love my children to a degree I have difficulty expressing in words, but it is precisely because I love them so much that I know I must leave. Only an arena grander than my classroom can help them in the way they need me. While my years in the classroom have solidified the stakeholders for my life’s work, how I will serve them is considerably less clear. Nonetheless, the utility of an education in public policy analysis remains abundantly so.

Among my many ambitions is the opening of my own school network, a plan so “innovative” that it is borderline ludicrous: it would enroll entire families that would register their children upon birth, providing resources and education to parents in low-income communities like mine. I also consider working with local governments to serve children like E, who can’t use school to its full efficacy until problems outside the educational domain are resolved. And I think about the role that nonprofits play in scalable social change; Three Square, Nevada’s only food bank, plays such a profound role in my children’s lives that I can’t help but think that similar entrepreneurial agility could supplement traditional classroom instruction.

Insert school-specific things here: professors that specialize in cultivating charter school networks, organizations that focus on social impact, interdisciplinary programs with design and engineering schools, etc.

Regardless, I am sure that today, my domain of influence is too limited; as long as children like E keep slipping through the cracks, I will be convinced that there must be more I can do — more that I simply must do.

The trouble with doorstops, cheap though they are, is that they quickly lose themselves. Once students kick them into the hallway as they are prone to do, they are essentially unrecoverable. In response, my colleagues have hatched a variety of schemes: some have ordered them in bulk from Amazon, while others have forged blocks of cement so cumbersome that it is worth no one’s effort to misplace them.

Call me stubborn or even stupid, but I have done none of these things despite their merit; I have doted on my singular doorstop — a tan, unobtrusive slab of rubber — all year, and the rest of my department has wondered why I insist on foraging their rooms after school on the many occasions that I lose it. But even when I must bulldoze headfirst through legions of sixth graders to find it, it invariably returns to the crevice behind the trashcan in my classroom. After being berated several times on the matter, my students have learned better than to mistreat it.

Few bother to flip it over, but when it is found upside-down by happenstance, they are shocked to find some stranger’s name inscribed there instead. When they inquire about it, I shake my head incredulously, wondering how the legacy of a teacher who had given this school almost two decades of her life could fade so quickly. We split the eighth grade in roughly half last year, but our relationship was hardly equitable. She shared her expertise, her lesson plans, her supplies, her tests, her everything-I-could’ve-asked-for, while I shared merely my complaints about how hard teaching is.

This year, teaching hasn’t gotten any easier, and I find myself clamoring for her wisdom and wishing she had waited another year to retire. The best I can do is covet everything she left behind.

———

I used to think it was impressive to wake up at four-thirty in the morning, but after setting my alarm so early for the past two years, I’ve discovered that … well, actually, it’s still pretty damn hard. Even when I fall asleep early, it is hard to shirk the reluctance to climb out of bed while it is still dark outside. These days, the task has become so difficult that I tell myself that I’m entitled to a small reward for slinking out of bed to brush my teeth, so after doing so, I furrow back into bed and read, thereby defeating the purpose of waking up so early at all.

But even back when I more expeditiously traveled to work, my car was never the first in the lot, nor was it ever the last. There are teachers that have been doing their jobs much longer than I have that spend many more hours planning in the morning and grading in the afternoon. They work so much harder than I do despite being so much better at this job than I am, yet, for all this extra work, they earn the most minimum wage of zero dollars per hour.

So when people ask me how I wake up so early all the time, I tell them about all the great examples that have been set for me. I tell them about my co-teacher, who must be one of the most patient and caring people alive. She works harder than I do even though she has a wedding to plan, a process that sounds so terrifying that I’m starting to stress out just thinking that it might happen to me sometime in the next decade. (But she shouldn’t worry so much that she will look beautiful in her wedding dress in a few months! I know she will.) And she has the most adorable little son, who is the fortunate beneficiary of her strong, piercing gaze: the one that once struck fear into me. She is struggling to find him a good kindergarten that won’t break the bank, but the lotteries have been unkind. The irony that a woman — a loving mother and an exemplary teacher — who has dedicated her life to helping others’ children can’t find an education for her own child flabbergasts me. Yet she shows up to work every morning with the same fiery determination to reach that one kid, to remind that other one to believe in herself because she deserves it. If she won’t give up, I can’t either. I can wake up just a little earlier.

Similarly, I love to tell people about my “department chair,” quotations used because she left the position but, as far as I’m concerned, never gave up the responsibilities. People, for whatever reason, think that a revolving carousel of books knows her students better than she does, she who has won numerous accolades for her work in low-income schools for over twenty years. She once considered pursuing an administrative degree, but she can’t reminisce on that forlorn part of her life with a straight face. I can’t deal with all these adults, she says, and I smile because I know exactly what she means.

To a certain — albeit logically questionable — degree, she’s right. She is inexplicably amazing with children, a fact I can confirm when I drop by her classroom in the mornings during my breaks. The only smile in the room bigger than her students’ is her own. Do you know that feeling when you’re watching some romantic movie and you can’t help but feel a little sappy over how perfect the ending is, to the point where you use sarcasm when discussing it with people to deflect how genuinely touched you really are? I get that feeling every time I walk into her classroom, because I’ve never seen a love so inexorably mutual, one that glows so brightly that I can see why she would hate to trade it for something that could never twinkle so purely.

But I think she overlooks all the times I’ve dropped by when there are no students in the room, when I can safely gripe about this or that and she always lends a sympathetic ear and some requisite sass to boot. There are those other times she’ll just offhandedly pull out some tests or papers for me when I ask for them, not realizing that it would have taken me hours to replicate the same task, likely in totally haphazard fashion. When people ask me why I work so hard, I tell them that I have to, just to come anywhere close to meeting the bar she has set for me.

So, if you’re reading this, I want you to know that I always shake my head when you say that you can’t handle dealing with us adults. I’ve been sure of this since you invited me to that first shrimp boil, back when I wasn’t sure if I could ever belong to this community of teachers I’ve come to love: you’re the best leader I’ve ever known.

———

After a long respite from debate practices because of spring break and several weeks of testing, my team was excited and, eventually, perplexed by this week’s topic: Teachers’ salaries should be determined by their students’ standardized test scores.

I asked them to devise arguments both in support of and in opposition of the resolution, which made them feel unexpectedly apprehensive. As they attempted to crystallize the issue, their questions closely resembled those of the pundits. Of course money would motivate teachers to work hard, but to what degree do they control student performance? Would a merit pay system encourage more people to enter the teaching profession? Would teachers who try hard but fail end up getting the axe and being out of a job?

This topic, more than most, felt personal to them. When they discussed specific teachers they know, it occurred to me that students own the most unique (and, maybe, the most valuable) perspectives on merit pay and an assortment of issues of educational policy. They are, after all, the consumers of the service we teachers offer. Inevitably, their discursive conversation swiveled back to the most obvious target: the teacher standing directly in front of them. “What do you think about merit pay?” they asked me.

I shrugged. Why do you ask?

Mr. Louie, they said, you work harder than any teacher we know, and you’re one of the best teachers we’ve ever had. But everyone fails your class because we don’t do our homework and a bunch of us just don’t care. So wouldn’t your life get worse if you were paid based on our failures?

Probably, I said. My scores, like most teachers’ here, just aren’t things I can be proud of. But is that failure really your fault, or is it my responsibility to invest you in your educations and convince you to care, to insulate you from the cruelty of the rest of the world and to push you where you’ve never gone before? And if I haven’t done these things, do I really deserve my job?

But that’s impossible! You can’t convince everyone you teach to care! Some of us just suck.

But do you? Or have I already failed at my job if I believe that some of you really do suck so much that you can’t be helped?

They offered no response, but I can only imagine that they were pondering silently what a teacher’s job description really is. The root of the word suggests that is our job to teach, but those parameters feel laughably constrictive, ignoring barriers to performing even that task that are seemingly insurmountable. To be honest, I don’t even know what my job description is, which makes it hard for me to assess my own performance. It’s one thing to know that you suck at your job; it’s another entirely to have no clarity on the matter whatsoever. The latter is a lot more stressful. These are the sorts of debates, I think, that nobody wins.

———

This Teacher Appreciation Week, I find myself in a weird position because I will, in less than a month, no longer be a teacher. As I stand at the precipice of some major life changes, I have become retrospective, especially now that I am more aware than ever of all the people I need to thank.

There’s my whole cadre of middle-school teachers, whom I will always remember as my staunchest advocates. They are, in fact, the reason I became a middle-school teacher myself, even if my disposition would probably be more successful with older students. There’s the one whose death last year made me realize that I would never have the ability to write this essay without her. There’s the one who let me stay in her room every day before school as long as I promised to help her; she gave me a school-wide award at the end of eighth grade for my dedication to the community. I always cite that moment as a pivotal reason I entered a career of public service.

When I was admitted to Stanford — my “dream school,” I had once told her — she somehow caught wind of the news and bothered to dig through archives to find my mailing address. She sent me the most touching handwritten postcard bearing her congratulations. Yet I never responded, and I feel filthy for it. I know there will be students that will be receiving letters and emails from me someday when they are accepted at the universities of their dreams, and I can only imagine the heartbreak I would feel if I never heard back from them.

And the worst part is that I can’t even imagine her being vindictive about it. She probably didn’t even expect a response from me; I can imagine her sending off the postcard with the most serene of smiles, wishing me the best and knowing that if I didn’t reply, it was because I was too busy making my own dreams come true. How could she possibly feel resentful? To know that a student’s dream has come true, I’ve found, is a teacher’s dream.

What she doesn’t know is that I still have that postcard, stored safely away in a drawer at my parents’ house. These teachers throughout my life — then and now — have given me so much and are so thoroughly responsible for the person I have become. I can only hope that they are proud of me! But the best I can do is covet everything they left behind.

The fifth largest school district in the United States is a desert in more than the physical sense. In an educational landscape as dry as the air around it, the sparse distribution of great classrooms does little to overcome the cloud of despair that envelops our public schools. Of the top thousand public high schools in the United States, exactly two can be found in the entire state of Nevada according to U.S. News & World Report: only one of them is in this district, and it is a magnet school.

To some around here, magnet schools whose admissions are based on the fortuitous pitter-pattering of ping-pong balls represent the only reliable and affordable sanctuary from the maladies of high dropout rates and low expectations. It was hard to not be offended when a student suggested as much to me when she asked me about transferring to a magnet school next year, threatening that her family would move if she couldn’t. Her accusation that I wasn’t teaching the class well enough for her was rather thinly veiled. But the bruise on my ego was short-lived. After all, she was right.

A recent immigrant from Mexico, she provoked laughter from her classmates as she pronounced the word “three” as “tree,” but the last laugh was hers when they discovered that her written English is at least three times as good as theirs. And math is her best subject. An intractable grading scale from her school south of the border kept her from an accelerated class, not the lack of any intellectual capital.

But there was a bigger reason I couldn’t be offended: I was the one who originally broached the topic of magnet schools. Earlier this year, I reserved an entire day of instruction to compare magnet school admissions to the increasingly cutthroat landscape of college admissions, which are eerily similar all the way down to the impact of letters of recommendation. She was the only one who got the hint: the person who was telling them about the significance of letters of recommendation — a frequent passerby of the world of admissions, a published writer, and a teacher of one of their core subjects — was openly soliciting requests for said letters.

After swallowing my pride, I told her I’d be more than happy to help her. Later that afternoon, I spent my most enjoyable hour of the day enumerating all the things I love about her: she is a twelve-year-old with aspirations to become a mechatronics engineer who riddled a copy of Stanford’s engineering handbook with annotations about how to prepare for college. She is my only student that calls me out on my mistakes during instruction, and she relishes the opportunity to elucidate a concept to a classmate when my explanation is too complicated. Her most frequent questions have nothing to do with math: “When is this class going to get harder?” and “How did you get into Stanford? And how do I do it?”

I don’t proofread most of my writing, but I spent the evening repeatedly perusing my letter. And then, I shipped it off, confident that even without my help, she wouldn’t have needed it anyway.

———

In a weird twist of fate, her magnet school admissions coincided with my own graduate school admissions. But whatever happiness gleaned from my own good news disappeared when I saw the most dejected look on her face one windy day in April. Her hand, usually found calmly and self-assuredly suspended in the air in anticipation of my questions, was clenched into an impenetrable fist, her knuckles pressed tensely against her porcelain forehead. When she moved it, its imprint was red with her fury and mine. She did not need to tell me the news for me to be angry about it.

While we in our bouts of drama like to compare modern college admissions to lotteries, magnet school admissions are literally and painfully so. Academic performance and letters of recommendation play some role, but ultimately, the gods of probability or insert-other-karmic-force-here determine the courses of entire futures.

The colloquialized law of averages suggests that as a society, we will win as often as we will lose. But at the individualized level, I’m not so sure that’s true, and I’m getting pretty fed up with things consistently not working in my students’ favor. Unfortunately, it’s not difficult to see why this phenomenon happens: the outcomes of significant events in a person’s life often lie outside his locus of control, and each outcome influences the range of possibilities for the next.

An overly simplified but nonetheless worthwhile example: A couple makes little money and lives in a community with a poorly run hospital, where their child is born to a dearth of resources to nourish her and educate her parents. They must work overtime to feed their own mouths plus one, and they do not know that a “word desert” will separate their daughter from one some zip codes away by millions of words in a matter of a few years.

It is just that much more heartbreaking when families strive for change — perhaps from a poor country to one ripe with opportunity, or from a maligned public school to a celebrated magnet school — only to be assailed yet again with the prominence of chance that originally placed them in that predicament. And when chance punishes that daughter who has made the most of her choices to no avail, I throw things across my classroom after everyone has left, and I bury my head in my arms for a while so that a cruel world can’t hear me mourn.

———

What are you going to do, I asked her after school. Nothing, she said with her silence. No, you’re going to do something.

Her mother hurriedly scheduled a second meeting with the principal of the magnet school before spring break, and she was equipped with a second letter of recommendation I had written. In it, I described how appalled I was to hear of the unfavorable verdict, and I harped on the disservice he would be doing — not just to her, but to the learning community she deserves to join.

The next day, I asked her how the meeting went, and she shrugged. Your letter was the only one I had, she said anxiously, but we’ll find out in a couple weeks. Nodding grimly, I told her to enjoy her spring break, knowing just how difficult it must be to enjoy that much idle time with your fears.

———

Yesterday, she stayed after school to tell me that she had finally heard back. I felt my heart sink to depths that I hadn’t touched in almost a decade, when I waited to open my letter of acceptance from Stanford. I wanted to say something, but my lips, which I imagine had turned pasty white, produced nothing.

“I got in!” she exclaimed. After taking a few moments to process the news, I put my hand out for a high-five, only to withdraw it quickly after feeling awkward about it. Ah, what the heck. I opened my arms and embraced her. We talked momentarily about the tutoring she would need to attend to be ready for her advanced math classes next year, but ultimately, she left the room with an unprecedented spring in her step. I couldn’t confirm it behind her voluminous coiffure, but I could tell she was grinning.

And then, I sat at my computer, planning out our class’s next project. I took a moment to privately celebrate this bit of good news before preparing to manufacture another one hundred and forty-nine. Ordinarily, it takes a little while to get myself to climb this monolithic hill for — with — my students. But, for some reason, it felt a bit easier to start this time.

“Every day,” I began before trailing off. After closing my eyes and gathering my breath, I resumed my moment of weakness.

“Every day, you make my blood boil, and you humiliate and crush me when you make it so obvious that I care more about your futures than you do.

“It’s on days like these that you make me want to quit my job.” On cue, the walls of the room seemed to converge into the vacuum of my lips, siphoning all the oxygen as momentarily, the house I had built atrophied beneath my feet. My students gasped and despite the grating, wretched quality of it, it was I who was suffocating.

———

I was recently asked to consider students I would recommend for accelerated math courses next year. Out of my one hundred and fifty students, I pulled a paltry six outside my classroom to break the news. In exchange, I received six responses I’ll never forget.

When told that tutoring will take place on Friday afternoons — there is a significant skill gap between the regular and accelerated tracks, making the transition from the former to the latter far from seamless — one student said that he might not be able to make it because he has church on Fridays. We looked at each other for a few seconds in silence. “Nah … God will understand!” he proclaimed before waddling his way back into the classroom the way most sub-five-feet boys do.

A girl asked me whether I would be teaching the class next year. For various reasons, the answer is no. Dismayed, she said she wasn’t sure she wanted to take the class anymore. “Don’t be silly!” I said. I’ll always be there by email, in spirit, on top of it, insert-other-corny-prepositional-phrase here. With a reluctant smirk, she sauntered back into the room. She returned her permission form the next day.

Yet another girl, a close friend of the last, fretted at the thought that she might be in trouble, a myth I spun with an impromptu look of consternation. “Why do you think I pulled you out here?” I asked. “I just got your friend out here, and you saw how sad she looked!” She became nervous; I could tell because whenever she takes tests, her hands start flapping uncontrollably. One could almost hear the creaking of the faulty hinges that connect them to her wrists. Then, I laughed, and she jabbed me in the arm as she does at least once a day. She is the easy target of daily pranks. But any hard feelings she harbored dissipated with the news that she would be considered for a class she had been hoping all year to take. “You’ll finally be in a class where everyone is as ugly as you!” I joked. And we were back to where we started: a place I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Several hours later, I handed a girl who immigrated from Mexico a note in (my extremely shoddy) Spanish to give to her parents about the English-only permission form. With the most condescending glare a twelve-year-old can give, she told me that her parents both read and speak English. “Also,” she noted, “your Spanish is terrible.” Gracias, you antipática punk. She flashed me her toothy, mischievous grin — the one she conjures when she catches my arithmetic mistakes in class — and proceeded to ignore me for the rest of the period.

———

There was one more boy earlier in the day who didn’t receive his form because he wasn’t there. In fact, he is habitually absent, and it is a wonder to me that apparently, he was absent even more frequently last year. Despite missing nearly half of the previous school year, however, his standardized test scores far exceed his classmates’. And I never have to worry that he won’t understand the material when he comes back from his sojourns from school, often more than a week in length: although he may be confused for a class period, he somehow traverses conceptual voids that, to most students, span galaxies in a matter of minutes and reasserts himself at the front of the curve, totally unaware that he is basically a divine revelation.

His mother and I have forged a strong working relationship these past few months in light of his absences and—get this—his apparent learning disabilities. His family’s financial situation sometimes precludes timely transportation to school, and their underlying disdain for the public bussing system is hardly misplaced. After being left behind at the bus stop by himself in disreputable places without any means of contacting his parents, he has developed a fear of the bus. A society that lets such an innocent boy be scared of anything is a cruel one.

Because he is unable to be at school consistently, I had some reservations about sending his form home. As I wrestled with them, I thought about a conversation we had earlier this year.

My co-teacher and I had noticed that white flakes were forming in his hair. We decided that as a male, I was in the best place to talk to him about his hygiene. So I went to Target and bought him a bottle of shampoo before asking him to come see me after school one afternoon.

I told him that this was a clandestine conversation between men: one day, I confided, he would be a lady magnet, but until then, I had some concerns about how frequently he was washing his hair. In the timid voice of a cherub, he said that he and his family were having some “problems with the water” at his house for the past couple of weeks. When I asked him to elaborate on what he meant about the water, he told me without the slightest sense of urgency or self-pity that there just wasn’t any.

I didn’t know what to say. I handed him the bottle of shampoo before realizing it would serve no purpose. But if he noticed the futility of the gesture, he didn’t express it. He smiled wanly before turning to waltz giddily out the door.

———

One of my favorite students was so elated to receive the news that she couldn’t even smile right away. Since the beginning of the year, she has claimed that math is her favorite subject, even though it has always been the hardest for her. Last year, it was the only class in which she couldn’t earn an A.

But that changed this year. A few months ago, she was my “student of the month,” and it is a selection I defend even if she is not the brightest of my students. She earned a B in my class last quarter, and she is the only one of the six I referred to do so. But she grapples with problems that most of her classmates don’t: she falls prey to the symptoms of being popular and pretty, damnations disguised as blessings until we are rescued by hindsight. Even I, secluded (thankfully) from the social scene of my students, have heard rumors of her indulgence in age-inappropriate mischief.

What I doubt most of her classmates see, however, is the pressure she endures at home. Later that evening, she messaged me online saying that her parents don’t believe in her, that they were considering throwing the form away because they didn’t trust her to put in the work, to put aside her social life to succeed. Minus the rare failure to submit homework, I couldn’t think of a single piece of evidence to nullify the way she carries her struggling classmates through group assignments, the determined stare she gives when she asks what she could do to improve, or her ambitions to live a life better than she has. How her parents fail to see the sure bet that I see is beyond me.

I responded by saying that she needs to use her parents’ doubts as motivation to prove them wrong, that she will just have to work that much harder to show that she can do it. She asked, “Do you think I can?” Of course I do. There are few things in the world I know: I know that the sun rises in the east, and I know that Justin Bieber sucks. And, most importantly, I know invariably that you will go change the world someday, no matter what anyone says about you.

———

I sat in my principal’s office yesterday, fumbling a fat packet of papers through my fingers. By the time the meeting ended, I would turn the packet in, and my resignation at the end of this school year would become official.

She knows that I am young, and when I told her the nature of my future opportunities, she said she couldn’t fault me for leaving. But a selfish part of her wishes that I were staying, she said wistfully. In that moment, I thought about these past couple of years, allowing it all to zoom before me in fast-forward as seems to happen in the last moments of anything: all the experiences and children and people and things I’ve learned and things that have made me want to cry and things that have made me giggle to myself on the drive home from work each day and all the other stuff I can’t begin to summarize in any reasonable way.

It was a hard decision to leave, I told her. And I love my students so much that I hope I will spend the rest of my life serving them and their families and millions like them.

Heck, I said, they’re the reason I almost can’t even quit this job!

There was certainly something to be said about the student with needs more special than anyone else’s, who perplexed my co-teacher so profoundly because she had never encountered a girl like her. But whatever it was, it must have eluded me altogether as I silently digested her request for a phone call with her parents. They were concerned about the rigor of my class.

They were worried it was too easy.

Her circumstances confused us before we even met her in late August, when we noticed that she was enrolled for special services but had listed no required accommodations. Although we both were aware that Gifted and Talented students count among those with special needs, we had taken the technicality for granted, as some might do with ignominious football seasons in retrospect. Never had the thought of actually interacting with one — let alone teaching one — crossed our minds.

Unfortunately, this imminent phone call, like too many things in this industry, was destined to end poorly, for little could be done to ameliorate her flukish, only-slightly-above-average performance on last year’s state exam. Chaos at the counselor’s office over inaccurate course placements and a bevy of parent complaints instigated a moratorium on course promotions across the department. Even if she deserved an accelerated math class that mirrored the rest of her schedule, she would be denied: a cynically premature introduction to the rebuttal of red tape.

I prepared for this conversation as if I were meeting a girlfriend’s parents for the first time: (mostly) by sweating profusely and concocting horrifying doomsday thoughts in the backmost nooks of my mind. In the worst of these, I considered how I would deliver this news to my own parents. Any laughs I offer at the thought of my father verbally assaulting me are of the nervous variety. No man makes a pastime of tripping mines.

But a valid comparison between my parents and hers entails that we, too, are comparable, though the fact that my students and I largely are incomparable is precisely why I became a teacher in the first place. Indeed, the fear that her parents would react like mine was mitigated by the realization that most of my students’ don’t; my parents would never have bombarded me to the brink of tears with expletives while the teacher was on the line, for example.

My relief, however, was fleeting. In this student, I saw not just the capacity for eerie comparisons, but also the rare opportunity for self-portraiture.

I, too, was a Gifted and Talented student, a designation that for many years empowered suppositions of intellectual entitlement. I, too, developed a penchant for sarcasm and dark humor at an early age. (But I wouldn’t call this behavior precocious so much as weirdly demented.) And I, too, remember math feeling mindless and unchallenging.

All these details and more were relayed during my conversation with her father, who came armed with an warmongering litany and the foregone conclusion of victory. Nonetheless, I countered: if anything, I said, he should be glad that she’s been stuck with the only person that’s going to understand her. I can push her beyond what everyone else considers reasonable, because I know you don’t care about what everyone else considers reasonable. You care about making your daughter the best she can be, which, as far as you’re concerned, means that she has to be the best.

I know this because my parents were the same way, and they demanded as much of me as I will demand of your daughter. Do you know how that turned out? I ranked nationally at almost everything I did, graduated from one of the top universities in the world, started my own company, and more. And if there’s one thing I can tell you for certain, it’s that your daughter is the only one who I believe with utter conviction can be better than I am.

I waited a few seconds for his response, until I heard faint sniffling on the other end. Thank you, he said shakily. She’ll stay in your class.

———

The next day, I greeted her with a gargantuan textbook, the same one the eighth-grade students use several doors down the hall. She looked at me quizzically, in that condescending way that implies I’ve made some clerical error that should have been snuffed out long before it reached her royal fingertips. (She relished these opportunities, knowing she couldn’t pull that stunt with me as frequently as she had with her other teachers.) So I assured her of the contrary with a wicked smile.

Each morning thereafter, I placed a Post-it on my desk containing a personalized assignment with a minimum of thirty problems from this new textbook. Beneath it, I scrawled some notes with lesson extensions and web sites; her assignments were vertically aligned such that she was always learning the eighth-grade version of my class lessons. Sometimes, her personalized reigmen necessitated wild deviation from the assigned curriculum, sampling problems that spanned the whole textbook: in October, for example, I taught her how to plot systems of linear functions, which most eighth-grade students don’t learn until several months later. Though I winced on mornings like these, she never failed to submit her homework on time. And when she didn’t understand the material, she dutifully emailed me around four o’clock in the afternoon. She must have been starting my homework right when she got home.

Eventually, I was running something to the effect of three different classes in one period, each with different tests, lessons, and assignments: one for my regular students, one for my students with disabilities, and one just for her.

I mean, you just don’t half-ass a self-portrait.

She deserved substantial credit as well. She was a willing sounding board for my whims of sarcasm, and she knew how to diffuse my frustrations with everyone else using a snide chuckle. Sometimes, I put her in charge of teaching a small cohort of her struggling classmates. Of course, she was never an angel about it. After a few minutes, she would throw her hands in the air — half in frustration and half in disgust — and let loose a sigh audible from the opposite side of the room. Welcome to my job, I would tell her, except that I have a hundred and fifty of you clowns to deal with.

Yeah, she responded, I don’t get how you do that. I don’t get you, Mister.

No, I said. I think you do more than most people.

(A pause.) Yeah, I do, Mister. I get you.

———

She was new to the school this year, and the change in scenery did little to quell her growing pains. I can’t wait to leave, she moaned one day. I hate this place!

And I hate your face, I responded in jest. She gave me her trademark smirk, her way of offering a proxy for “That’s not funny, Mister … even though it is.”

But after some thought, I realized that I couldn’t blame her. Our similarities in temperament were belied by differences in circumstance; the opportunity gap would be a lot smaller if we could manufacture opportunities from simple moxie. I once believed that people have the power to make their own luck, that no excuses should be afforded to those who never climb to great heights. Hidden behind my childish myopia, however, were the socioeconomic mechanics that facilitated my success: the freedom to experiment with no fear of sunk costs, the capital to travel and explore, an environment whose culture of achievement dates back to its settlement. These are the things I try to bring with me to school every morning.

Yet I can only carry so much spirit from the reservoir of my soul, and it is not enough to feed the bounty of malnourished minds I encounter every day. But hers — her problem was different, but still I fumbled around it.

I often think that I would be painfully bored being my own student, despite my perennial efforts to maximize rigor and entertain my class. She was tactful and thus would never admit it, but I saw her reach the same conclusion whenever I caught her daydreaming. But, of course, she knew that I had caught her daydreaming and that I allowed it only for her. Such is the bond we shared.

My classroom was just a microcosm for this problem, lamentably, and I feared that a pond this small would stunt her growth. One day, it would, if it hasn’t already. The invisible shackles that fettered her were nonexistent during my childhood. After all, if my parents ever encountered limits to my learning, they simply moved me to a new school.

This, I felt, constituted the difference between her and me. It pained me to know that each moment I cherished with her was a moment she should be blossoming somewhere else.

———

One afternoon, she waited in my classroom for her father to pick her up from debate practice. (Did I mention she was good at that, too? A splitting image, indeed.) I broached the topic of her ambitions to become an actress, specifically one who hopes to “tour the country in a pink hippie bus,” when she asked me whether I wanted to be a teacher when I was her age.

No, I replied a little too quickly, which made the conversation suddenly feel a little awkward. I then said I wanted to be a Power Ranger. She laughed, and she laughed only for the right reason: irony, not the puerile spontaneity we expect from her classmates. But I decided to regale her with a serious answer anyway.

The truth is that I’m probably not a career teacher. It’s not because of the money or the prestige, but rather because I honestly can’t say I’m good enough for you — for all of you. A little bit of me dies inside each day as I fail over and over at something that I care about so much. I don’t know, kid. You might not see me around next year.

She blinked a couple times, trying to decide whether to take me seriously. When she finally determined that I was being honest, she raised her voice an octave. Are you kidding me? You’re the ONLY good teacher I’ve ever had. Ask anyone whether you care about us, and they’ll all say you care the most.

But I shook my head solemnly. Teacher efficacy is measured not in units of caring, but in medium growth percentile and colored boxes on data reports. It’s measured in the progress we observe anecdotally and quantitatively each day. You might say it’s measured in how often it seems I’m lecturing to fortified brick walls instead of engaging young minds in math. And in that metric in particular, I’m just not good enough. I don’t know if I ever can be. This might be it.

To signal the finality of her case, she picked up her backpack and walked toward the door. You just don’t get it, Mister. You’ll see one day.

As I watched her storm out the room, the pitch I made to her father echoed in my mind. She needs me, I had told him. The irony was blatant; the reality was that I needed her as much as she needed me. She was no longer just a self-portrait — an egocentric indulgence, the most flattering trinket.

I needed her to be right.

———

Weeks later, she entered my classroom with gloomy indolence, bearing the textbook I had given her in September. She seemed bogged down by the weight of an onerous burden. When I asked her facetiously if she was throwing in the towel, she didn’t flash me the quick, easy grin I had come to expect.

I’m leaving, she pronounced. Her parents were moving across town; while relocating in the middle of the school year is hardly atypical, workers in this predominantly low-skill labor force are particularly itinerant. But it’s a promotion, she assured me. With an increase in her father’s pay grade, she could finally attend a nicer school, where she might even get her accelerated math class.

Her news rendered me speechless, but even all the time in the world couldn’t have prepared me to bid her goodbye. It was easier to hope that she would find greener pastures when the possibility seemed strictly academic.

Thank you, I said, for letting me a part of a life that I know will be full of big things someday. Don’t forget your old math teacher!

No, she said wistfully through tears, thank you. Thank you for being as hard on me as you are on yourself, for dreaming as big for me as you do for yourself. Can I get a hug? As we embraced, I was careful to move my face so that my cheek wouldn’t graze the wet part of her sleeve. She whispered in my ear: This is why you’re the best teacher I’ve ever had. I won’t forget you. You’ll see.

Then, she walked out the door. Months later, I haven’t heard from her: no emails, no comments on my website, no visits. It’s unclear whether she has forgotten me already, but I have hope. She is probably busy getting ready to accomplish big things.

I know I would be; I know I should be.

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