At twenty-three, I’m newly back in the States after living in France, and I take a job at a small language school in Kenmore Square in Boston. Located in a stately old building, the language school is on the second floor above a Dunkin Donuts. I am hired to do administrative work, but after a month or two, I am suddenly given the opportunity to teach an ESL class.
I know nothing about ESL, but I already think of myself as a teacher, am already preparing for what will be my life’s work.
My first class is made up of four men — Mohammed, Mohammed, Mohammed, and Medhat. We laugh and I tell the Mohammeds that they have to wear different colored shirts each day so I can refer to them that way — Mohammed in the red shirt, Mohammed in the blue, Mohammed in the white, Mohammed in the brown. Medhat is quieter, more serious than the Mohammeds. Together, we all practice dialogues and I do my best to explain the idiosyncrasies that make up the English language.
The four of them are Egyptian. They wear crisp shirts, jeans with ironed pleats. With me, they are polite, though one of the Mohammeds likes to joke, likes to make the rest of us loosen up a bit, relax. He has an easy grin and it’s clear that these guys all like one another and have been friends for a while now. Each day, they come ready to practice their vocabulary and improve their sentences.
One evening after a couple weeks of classes, I arrive early to the Language Center. It’s fall and the open window lets in cool, sugary air. I’m arranging chairs, setting up our room, when I’m startled by a voice and then a body emerging from behind the classroom doorway. It’s Medhat. He has a question, he says. He is dressed as he always is, neatly in a button-down shirt, pressed jeans and loafers. He stumbles a bit with his words and although he is always the quietest one in class, he seems suddenly shy. He wants to know what one does in America when one wants to ask a woman for her hand in marriage.
I shrug. “You just ask her,” I say. In retrospect, maybe I should have been more alarmed by the question, more attuned to what was really on Medhat’s mind. But at twenty-three, I wasn’t yet attuned to much besides my own emerging self, my newly discovered awareness of my sexual orientation and my thrill at living in my first apartment in Boston’s North End. I continue fussing with chairs, the donut smell lingering, a taunt.
Medhat stands silent and then after what feels like several awkward minutes, blurts out that he has bought me a necklace. A silver eagle. It reminds him of me, he says, the way the eagle soars proud. He pulls the small box out of his pocket, opens it to show me. He says some other things I don’t quite catch, something about the musical Cats. He seems to be waiting for a response.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Can you repeat that?”
If it is OK, he says, he would like to take me and my mother to see Cats. He pauses again, still holds open the small box.
“Cats?” I repeat. “You want to take me to see Cats?”
He nods. “And your mother,” he repeats.
I feel a little stupid, the room suddenly too warm, too sweet. This is a first. I think I’ll have to ask the protocol. Does one go to musicals with ESL students? Accept eagle necklace gifts?
Then Medhat clears his throat and says he wants to ask me to marry him.
“Oh Medhat,” I say, standing still then, gripping the back of the chair. “I can’t marry you.”
His face falls. “You do not love me,” he says. “Because of my little English.”
“I don’t love you,” I tell him, “because I hardly know you.” I try explaining that while I think he is a very nice man, I am not interested in him that way. “I have a girlfriend,” I say. He doesn’t seem to mind. “I have so much money,” he tells me. “You will be princess. You can have girlfriend, too.”
How we got through class that evening, I don’t remember. But I do remember him suddenly becoming a terrible student. He stopped practicing his English and writing his sentences. He pouted in class, acted like a teenager. We both agreed, finally, that he should find another English teacher, that this arrangement was no longer working out—but not before Medhat insisted on taking me and my mother to see Cats.
Mehat’s proposal was the first and perhaps most dramatic offer I ever received from a student, and because we were both adults, I didn’t think about the likelihood of receiving similar offers from students once I started teaching junior high and high school.
But I was wrong.
At twenty-four, I was teaching developmental reading and study skills, an educational program that sent teachers into private and parochial schools to offer a six-week, fee-based program. I was teaching at Cheverus High School in Portland, ME, an all-boys Jesuit high school where I was one of very few women. An early winter afternoon, one boy, a freshman, fourteen years old, hung around the classroom after we were done for the day while I erased the board and packed up my materials. We chatted about various subjects—the music I liked, the movies I had seen. And again while I was preoccupied, not thinking much about our conversation, wondering, maybe, how I could send him on his way so I could go find something to eat and then hole up and read in the little hotel room where I stayed during my stint at Cheverus. this boy proceeded to ask me out. To be his girlfriend.
I was stunned. I didn’t say but thought: are you kidding me? You can’t be serious. But the earnest look on his face told me he was. So I swallowed and counted to ten. Waited for the right words to come to me and sat down next to him.
How to honor his feelings but be clear and honest about what was happening?
“I know what you’re going to say,” he said. “But age doesn’t matter. Not when you love someone.”
I wanted to say. “But you’re fourteen.” I wanted to say, “You don’t love me; you love the idea of me.” I wanted to say,
“For God’s sake, I’m your teacher.” I don’t remember being flattered, though I think I told him I was, the way I told another student, a seventh-grader years later that I was flattered when he told me he thought I’d be a “fun date.” He wasn’t talking about himself, really—instead, he was letting me know he thought I was cool and when you’re a young teacher, being thought of as cool can be both dangerous and exhilarating.
The children’s author Avi is famously quoted as saying that in order to teach children anything, first you have to love them. And after thirty years of teaching, I agree. You have to love the whole of them sitting there in front of you, with their difficult families, their low expectations, their hidden dreams, their crushes. You have to love them all, even the ones who roll their eyes and resist every attempt you make to get them invested in their own lives. By the time those kids are in high school, they have learned how to get by and how to do what the teacher wants. Most of them have never considered what they think or how they affect the world. They feel invisible most of the time and if you, the teacher, can make them feel seen and heard, and yes, loved, then you can get them to do most anything. You can help them learn the wonders of their own minds and learn to trust their own hearts. This is what education is about, after all. Not test scores or standards but human beings learning to reach their own great potential.
Of course, throughout all the years in all the various classrooms where I’ve taught, I didn’t always pay attention to that ideal. Like most teachers I’ve known, I’ve gotten lost in my own neediness, in my own sense of importance, my own central presence in the classroom— which, as I’ve come to discover through this long teaching career, is not the most important one. Instead, it is those faces in front of me whose neediness and sometimes resistance to being loved fully for who they are that are the crucial presence. Adults or children, it doesn’t matter. Those students require—demand—an honest and generous love from their teachers.
Love can get confusing, though, especially for kids and maybe even sometimes for adults. Now, in my fifties, loving my students feels easier, less risky, though still we can love our students so much sometimes that we forget we’re not their parents. They already have (some of them) loving adults in their lives who know what’s best for them.
But some of them—many of them— don’t.
A friend who has worked in the juvenile justice system for over twenty years shares this research: everyone, she tells me, needs at least two people they can count on unconditionally in order to develop resilience and overcome adverse childhood experiences.
Just two people.
As a teacher, I’d like to count as one.