Some of my third period students pointed out to me today that I have a hard time saying no. They are correct, and some of them are not quite sure how they feel about that. They hear their peers say things like,
“Can I hand in my essay tomorrow?”
What, I’m going to refuse to accept it? Like I’ve never been in a tight academic situation before, desperate for a bit of human understanding? Like if I accept it, that student won’t learn his lesson about punctuality and one day he’s going to grow up, miss a mortgage payment and the bank is going to then refuse to take his money entirely?
Am I going to say no when you want to use the bathroom or fill up a water bottle or take care of any other bodily function your highly unpredictable teenage body is guaranteed to throw at you?
Like I want to be the teacher who made you soil yourself in Junior English. Or worse yet, hear in detail about whatever crisis it is that impels you to ask me to use the pass precisely when the school-wide handbook prohibits that you do so. Just GO.
I’m not sure I’m cut out for the nitty-gritty disciplinary aspects of teaching. I understand why the policies are in place, but I’ve always sort of favored the spirit over the letter of the law, and despite my best intentions, that side of my nature generally wins. Most kids don’t take advantage of that, but occasionally one will. The thing is, though–I’m not really sure that bothers me enough to change my approach.
I’m not actually sure I’m a proper teacher, at all.
I mean… I know the theories of good pedagogy. I understand the rationale behind discipline matrices, common assessments, diplomas, class ranks, etc. I wholeheartedly agree that education is an immeasurably valuable thing.
But I despise trying to rank them or their ideas on a scale of 1-100. I despise cataloging them in my computer each period as on-time, late, or absent, and trying to determine whether or not the story about 300 other people waiting in line to use the bathroom is a valid excuse for being tardy, or if one student’s medical condition requiring them to eat in class is more legitimate than another kid who’s just plain hungry.
And so I say yes. And maybe I say yes too often, I don’t know. I do know who I am–and that teacher in 3rd period–that’s about as me as it gets: I’m just as hungry and tired and ready for something besides taking notes and reading small print under florescent lights as they are; for most of us, it’s been six hours since breakfast–if we had time to grab it at all.
So yes, go get some lunch. Use the bathroom. Turn in your essay as soon as you get it done; you won’t have time to rewrite it for a better grade like your classmates, but I’m not going to penalize you for not fitting into the same mold your neighbor did. Mostly, I just want to hear your voice speaking loud and clear–and if that takes you longer to formulate than it did the kid next to you, then hurrah. Ask me if you can turn it in next week. You know I’m going to say yes.
And if you are the kid who turns in your work on time, every time, and never needs to use the bathroom during class or borrow a pencil, then hurrah for you, too. Doesn’t that feel good? To be organized, and sure of your future, and stress-free when grade-checks come around? There will be plenty of other yeses in your life, too. Yeses that your struggling peers will never hear: Yeses to job interviews and scholarship applications and friendships and bonuses.
Don’t get to feeling anxious about the few yeses you share with your less academically gifted peers right now, in this classroom; you are going to have to share other things with them in the future–a lot of things–and if you learn to do so graciously, it will become easier for you to say yes to others.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not asking you to become anything less than you are now–I’m not asking you to shrink or shy away from your full potential–in fact, don’t you dare. In (roughly) the words of C.S. Lewis, the graciousness I’m asking you to develop, the humility of which I speak–it is not to think less of yourself, dear student–it is simply to think less about yourself, and more about others.