I have found myself choking back tears at the end of a work day exactly two times in my career as a teacher. The first time was fewer than ten days into my first year as a “real” teacher, when the principal stopped in to see how things were going and my students were all playing on their phones because, at that point, I had no idea what else to do with them when a lesson ended a few minutes early.
The second time was today.
The principal was nowhere in sight, and my lesson went really well; in fact, I was able to modify and adjust it throughout to meet different students’ needs and compensate for unforeseen misunderstandings and mishaps, which is the literal dream when it comes to teaching.
Until 3:05, in fact, I was feeling like a god damn badass about my pedagogical prowess. At 3:06, when my students were wrapping up and submitting their assignment, closing their Chromebooks, and putting up their chairs, I was feeling damn pretty self-satisfied. And at 3:07, as I was reminding a student who’d been suspended for the last week that he needed to stay after to catch up on a few assignments – something we’d arranged earlier in the class period – my ego had ascended to martyr status.
But as the clock shifted to 3:08 and the bell rang, that student – with whom I’ve been working all year, whenever he chooses to come to, or isn’t suspended from, school – looked me in the eye and simply said, “Not today,” then he drifted out into the masses pouring from neighboring classrooms toward that elusive 3:09 freedom that every student lives for.
This is when I cried.
And this is also why I cried.
I am so intensely unemotional that it’s caused romantic relationships to fall apart and friends to (hopefully jokingly) call me a sociopath. I don’t cry, unless I’ve had too much wine and decide I want to peruse the “Awww” section of Imgur.
With the exception of drunk and/or happy tears, these eyes are always dry. But today was frustrating on every echelon, and seeing the defeated, defiant look in the eyes of a student who I’ve specifically, strategically tried to help since the end of August hurt. It just fucking hurt.
And then I called my mom.
And it wasn’t okay, but I was okay.
Our conversation was pretty standard: How are you? Today I… Can you believe…? Just remember…I love you! I talked, she listened. She asked, I answered. I apologized for my tone, she reminded me that it’s okay to be upset. In the simple way that only my mom can, she made it better. She didn’t make the weight of today any lighter, but she did remind me that I’m strong enough to carry it.
My mom has loved me since before I was born. This is not news. Moms do that, usually. But she loved me when I was insufferable, inconsolable, and irrational. When I was exhausting every ounce of my teen angst to convince her she was terrible, she was making me chamomile tea and telling me it’ll be okay. She’s listened as I weighed every awful option and been impartial when she could have intervened because she recognized that there was a lesson for me to learn. She doesn’t just love me; she cares about me. And people who care don’t ever stop.
So that student who looked right into my eyes and, shooting apathy like hate speech at a Trump rally, denouncing the entire establishment of public education (myself included)? He might not be ready to accept help, and he might never accept help from me. However, my mom has reminded me – once again – that those who care the best also care when it’s not acknowledged; when it’s not accepted. They continue to care in all conditions. My mom did it for my sister, brother, and me, and we’re all pretty great people.
She also taught me how to do exactly that for my students… even when (especially when) they don’t give two halves of a fuck.