I realize this is what it feels like to be in love.
When you go over and over in your mind every word s/he speaks to you. How s/he looks at you. When you cherish every small gesture and gift. That is love.
And I am in love with my students.
I love L with his chipped tooth smile and thin veneer of modesty veiling an enthusiasm for learning just itching to run up to the rooftops and shout its name. I am free now. I am not in the refugee camp anymore. I am here with my sharpened pencil ready to learn.
I pepper the class with words that we are about to spell on the spelling test and he comes back machine-gun rapid fire every time with the correct spelling. I tell the level 2 students they only have to spell the first five words. The rest are for the level 3 students. He spells all ten words anyway.
I am in love with N and her eleven children and five grandchildren and the way she grips the djembe between her legs on graduation party day.
I am in love with J. She rose to the challenge the day I had to leave to cover for another teacher before their teacher had returned to the room. I left her in charge and told the students she was their pro tem instructor. When I came back, she was at the front of the room drilling the class using a chart she’d put on the board…a very helpful tool I hadn’t thought to give them. I hugged her, told the students they were in good hands and left again.
I am in love with industrious D and his fastidious ways. He has shown me what it was like to be a teacher to me when I was younger. I wish I could allow him free reign to speak every time he knows the answer, but then nobody else would ever get a chance to sit and think and see if they, too, can find a response within themselves.
I am in love with Mr. Z and his 80-year-old eyebrows. He is punctual and quiet. He looks up every word in his electronic dictionary. I can barely hear him when it’s his turn to read. When I wish him a nice weekend, the faintest smile creeps across his lips as he wishes me the same.
Four weeks ago an instructor took a leave of absence of barely more than a month. I inherited one of her classes. For this particular class, they were in the habit of drifting in late, coming back from breaks late, talking over each other and talking over the teacher. She warned them that being with me would be a rude awakening.
I don’t know if, in that first week, they thought the wickedest witch had plopped herself down in their world. Yes, I expect you to be sitting in your seat at 12:30. That is, after all, when class starts. Is it not? Okay, then. Yes, I will mark you absent if you are not here.
I reminded them of the contract they each signed upon enrollment in the school. To treat the classes like a job, to call in if sick, to respect the instructor and each other. Speaking while another is reading is not respectful, I pointed out. And so when they forgot, I simply stood and silently waited for the chatter to subside. It didn’t take long. Any group of humans will catch on pretty quickly. Nobody wants a roomful of people staring at them.
Once they knew I wasn’t kidding, they began coming on time. By week two I was able to tell them to be back from break at exactly 2:00 for a spelling test. At 2:01 every student but one (rebelliousness runs in his family) was seated with pencil poised, ready to write the first dictated word. (The rebellious one got a 47% for not being present for the first seven words. Try as he might have, charm did not help him wiggle out of it.)
And you know what? They LOVE it. My boss had even warned that if I changed things too much, they would just change schools or stay home until their regular teacher returned. Not so. People love it when you challenge them to be the best they can be.
By week three I began to see signs of affection.
I am in love with H. She came here with her husband and several small children from a land where women are not sent to school. She had not held a pencil since grade four. He went to work every day but she stayed home with the babies. He did not feel she needed to learn English. Then he died. She was alone in Canada and could not speak the language. Could not write her name. Did not know how he paid the bills, how to ride a city bus, where to go for help. Somehow, she found us. I remember her first day of literacy class. The orientation counselor brought her to me because I know a few phrases in her language. She cowered in the back of the classroom until 3:00, gathered her babies from the childminders and ran home. She did not return. When the orientation worker called to see why she had not returned, she said she wasn’t smart enough for the class and wasn’t worthy of a seat. We coaxed her back. I sat next to her and cooed encouragement in her language.
She stayed in class. Her voice is so soft, I have to sit right next to her and lean over with my ear by her mouth like I do with Sylvain in a movie theatre. She shook her head no when the teacher called her to the board.
Gradually, ever so gradually, she figured out that there were people in the class who were SLOWER than she was at picking up on a, b, c, d and how they come together to make words. She was learning to read and write. She was not the slowest. In time, she was not the newest to the class. She could let another student peek at HER paper for answers.
She had a right to that seat. She even made a friend in class… a friend who doesn’t mind leaning close to hear her whispered words.
The other day I saw her upstairs, far from her classroom, during break. She was hovering around the tea cart that a couple of other teachers and I have invented to compensate for the fact that we have no lunch or break room for students.
“H, do you want some tea?” I asked. She lowered her eyes and managed “no cup” in English. We don’t allow styrofoam, being all earth-friendly and such.
“You can bring a cup from home,” I told her. I showed her some cups with students’ names on the bottoms. I knew she wouldn’t bring one, though. So I brought one from my house and wrote her name on the bottom in black Sharpie.
The next day I told her, “I brought you a cup. I put your name on it.”
Now she comes upstairs at break time and makes herself a cup of something hot in her cup. You might think this is such a small thing, but it is HUGE. She now knows she is worthy not only of a seat in class, but of the whole hallway, and of a cup, and of some hot tea.