Tonight, as Free was in the tub, she wept as she told me how many things scare her. I worry that she will inherit my tendency toward anxiety, and I try to help her by reassuring her and giving her ways to focus on the good rather than the bad. Tonight, though, nothing seemed to be working, and she begged me to sleep with her so that nightmares and monsters couldn’t get her. I promised I would because so often I tell her I can’t.
Part of the fallout of divorce is that you can’t sleep with your partner and your child at the same time. It seems like a small thing, but on nights like this, it’s anything but. As I write this, I am torn because I don’t want her to wake up and find out I am not there. I want to help keep her monsters at bay, but tonight I also want to do that for Newman, who got news this morning that one of his past students killed himself several days ago. He’s been reeling ever since.
This school year, my SMART goal (professional goals we set for ourselves that should be somehow measurable and specific) is to connect with my students more. It’s something that doesn’t come naturally for me, as I’ve written about before, and I’ve gone about it in the way I tackle most goals: methodically, by breaking it down into manageable steps.
The most important part of my plan actually began years ago when I started to watch and learn from a master teacher. Everyone knows who the most popular and effective teachers are at any given school. Once in a great while, those two categories overlap, and you get a teacher who is both loved and respected; s/he gets an astonishing number of students to respond to his/her intellectual challenges by connecting with them. At our school, Newman is that teacher. I can still remember running into him for the first time after I was hired for the job. Walking into the high school a day or two before actual classes began, I was still navigating the halls tentatively as a freshmen would, and he took the time to walk with me and guide me.
Knowing him now as I do, I can guess that he was busy getting organized for the year and had a million tasks to complete that day. He was hating giving even an hour of his summer up to be at school and was fighting the annual worst case of Sunday-night blues, which occurs for teachers in disproportionate proportions in late August. He didn’t let on to any of this, though; instead he gracefully met me where I was and patiently listened as I shared my nervousness and my fears.
His attention to me was a gift, but it was in the two minutes of his inattention that he inadvertently gave me my first lesson. As we walked, we passed by a young student who was sitting on a bench near the school entrance. He wasn’t looking up and didn’t seek a connection in any way. In my eager, nervous chatter, I barely noticed him. Newman, on the other hand, gently interrupted me, saying “just a moment,” and walked purposely over to the student. Reaching out his hand, he leaned into a hearty greeting, displaying a broad smile while proclaiming his excitement to see the young man. The student’s face lit up, thrilled to be acknowledged and to be worthy of the effort Newman was making. Newman introduced him to me and reiterated his message to the student: how great he looked, how wonderful it was to see him again.
Last week, I did an exercise with my students where they gave each-other written affirmations. I inserted myself into the circle because I was curious about what they were writing, and I wanted to make sure each student got a really specific positive piece of feedback from me. At the end of the exercise, there were a glorious few moments where everyone read their own affirmations, or compliments as Free called them (for it was she who gave me the idea when her after-school program did this same exercise). I watched my students’ faces, worried that some might have violated my “no jokes, no sarcasm” rule. I didn’t need to worry; they were all lit up in the same way that young man was when Newman saw him and reached out to connect. They were laughing, sharing their affirmations with each other, full of joy and giddy energy. I peeked at my own sheet and found myself reacting the same way. There was no way not to be filled up by the comments. The one that struck me the most was repeated several times in different variations: “I respect you because you treat me like a human, not a child.”
When I read those comments, it brought me right back to that moment when Newman stopped our conversation to briefly connect with a young man. It has taken me years, but I’m finally starting to reap the benefits of copying his best practices.
There’s no way to comfort both Free and Newman tonight or either of them, for that matter. As a mother and a partner, I don’t have the power to fix or shoo the nightmares they’re facing. What I can do, what I will do, is listen, love and be as close as I can when they need me to be. I fell asleep earlier snuggling close to Free, and I will sneak into her bed before dawn to do so again. Newman is cuddling into me now, and so, I must say goodbye here.
The student who just died reached out to Newman a year ago via Facebook to tell him that he was his favorite teacher. He wrote that he had had a long struggle with drug addiction but was trying to work through it to find his way. He wrote that he wanted to be a teacher like him, and that he was going to try to do it the way Newman did–by connecting first and teaching through that connection.
Tomorrow we will all rise and go about our days. I will keep trying to connect in small ways to others, even when it doesn’t come naturally, and even when it doesn’t seem to do any good–because the truth is, no-one really knows when or how those efforts are really felt on the other side.
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