What no one tells you when you begin to teach is that probably the most effective teaching you will do will be in that little sliver of time before and after class, the quiet conversation in the arriving or the leaving, the whispered questions, the impromptu conferences, the getting to know you and how was your weekend and make sure you are getting enough rest, and all the many communications between students and students and students and teachers that happen in the smallest margin of time, before the class begins and the bell rings and it is business as usual, the business being the diligent transfer of information, a task which in the doing sometimes fails to leave room for connection, creativity, and community.
Another thing people fail to mention is that there is never a time when students show more creativity than when they are explaining why they were late, gone, failed to finish, or any other excuse they need to make. In fact, as a communication, the excuse might be the most time honored genre of student communication—well used, well worn, and ready to pull out of a pocket at a moment’s notice. A missed bus, a late night, a sniffle, a broken heart, a frustrated parent—I have heard every variation of a reason for lateness, absence, or missing assignments over the years I have been teaching. Sometimes they are creative. Sometimes they are tired. And other times, I feel like the excuses that are made mean I might just be doing something right after all.
Consider: a note I received this week from a student. “I wanted to let you know why I missed class yesterday—you might think it is interesting. My mother was asked to speak last minute at a rally at the state capitol yesterday advocating for free feminine products in schools. There is a bill right now that our state is considering passing for this.
Anyway, It was a fun day to use my voice, and watch my mother use hers. Thanks for being a teacher who emphasizes having a balanced life, I usually wouldn’t miss class but this was really important to me—you told us at the beginning of the year to not miss out on a big adventure to have perfect attendance. I appreciate that.”
Now I don’t remember telling them to have an adventure—although it sounds like something I would say, in those informal moments before class, when I am getting to know them, chatting about this, that, or the other. Encouraging them to meet new people, to ask questions, to be brave. But I do remember feeling surprised that this ‘adventure’ was something a student even felt they needed to explain, for what is education supposed to be if not a preparation to serve, to advocate, and to use our voices on behalf of others? Especially for a class on rhetoric and writing, our focus all semester being how to connect, to create, to engage in community? But I also remember being a student, in a sepia-toned long ago—the endless assignments, the attendance policies, the feeling that everything must be just so in order to get good grades.
This seems to me to be a metaphor of some kind, this feeling that we are trying so hard to do well in one area that we miss other opportunities—that our hands are so full as we hold on to to what we feel we must do, that there is no room for things we might get to do—and because of this we become blind to unexpected gifts and new opportunities. Education specifically, and life more generally teaches us to see things through a lens of scarcity. We think that in order to achieve certain things we must give up others. That everything is a trade off, a compromise, a zero sum game. We are not taught to see life through a lens of abundance or courage or trust. We fail to navigate the world with gratitude and optimism. We do not know how to make the simple shift that allows us to look at the world and see all the bounty and beauty that surround us each and every morning as the sun rises in striking colors that paint the sky in possibility.
I am a lenient teacher when it comes to deadlines—I know this. It is pointed out to me by other teachers (sometimes in disapproval), by my family (occasionally in frustration), and frequently by my students (often in disbelief). When I listen to those students as they come into the classroom, as they talk to one another, as they compare notes and deadlines and expectations and worry, I feel that what they need more than a deadline is a little bit of grace. A space to breathe. One classroom where their presence is more important than their perfectly punctuated five paragraph essay. An abundance of opportunity.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “The universe is an amazing puzzle.” Occasionally we need to make an excuse to stop and breathe—to look around and unravel a bit of it—and that, it seems to me, could be the best education of all.