Teaching is hard work, and often requires relentless patience and care for not only the student, but also the child. Sean Gleason has this Perspective.
My students know which words are unacceptable in my classroom. Not your usual four-letter words, the words I don’t excuse are those born of violent intolerance.
So when one of my students used a particularly oppressive word, only to repeat it instead of correcting it, he knew what he was doing. Unfortunately, on that day I was out of emotional resilience, and my own traumas were triggered.
As a teacher, I know not to take these behaviors personally. Student outbursts are rarely about us and often about the place they’ve had to inhabit within a system that labels and disregards them.
My relationship with this student see-sawed between affection and tension. He was full of jokes that disregarded the way others felt. Each time we’d butt heads, though, I’d find him for a conversation, we’d apologize, and the cycle would restart.
Fundamental to my work is the practice of seeing humanity in all behaviors. In this student’s, I saw vulnerability. He used humor the way a magician uses sleight of hand – to misdirect the audience from what’s really happening.
The night he graduated, I cried in my bedroom, scared of what might happen when hallway reconciliations are no longer an option. A month later, he was arrested, convicted as an adult, and sentenced to the rest of his adolescence in a cage.
In a letter, he described the surprise he felt the first time I visited. “Not even my own dad has come to see me,” he wrote. He recognized, in me, an unwillingness to give up on him.
Memories of our clashes have since faded. What really mattered was my incessant caring. Whether we’re educators, mentors, or family, what’s most important is that we believe in showing young people love even when we don’t feel loved back.
Earlier this week, I received another letter from him. This time, though, it didn’t open with “Dear Mr. Sean.” It began, “Dear Uncle Sean.”
With a Perspective, I’m Sean Gleason.
Sean Gleason is an educator who works and lives in Oakland.