My son, who is now seven months old, is still learning how to sit up on his own. He’s making progress. I can set him on the floor now at a safe distance from the walls and any nearby furniture, and he teeters around, mostly maintaining his balance, gladly playing with his little cop car and other toy softies for a few minutes while I fold some clothes, or brush my teeth.
But eventually, he falls over and looks at me like now what? Sometimes he gets distracted long enough by the sound of birds through the open window, or the gentle waving shadows the blinds cast on the wall, to forget where he is “supposed to be” and just enjoys the moment. As long as he’s still in good sorts, I let him lay there for a few minutes, doing mini baby crunches as he tries to will himself back into a sitting position, until he gets fed up with this learning nonsense and lets me know it.
I’ll sit him back up and he’ll fall back down. I’ll step out of the room for a minute and when I come back, he’ll be lying on the floor again, looking up at the ceiling and then at me, annoyed it seems, that his efforts aren’t getting him where he wants to go.
I read somewhere recently that expectations are just planned disappointments. I’m beginning to think they might be right.
I expected that because I am used to teaching students who I consider “grown ups” that this is what I would get. I didn’t expect that instead some of them would ask the teacher, “What do I have to do to get an A?” rather than find their own reasons to learn as much as they can.
I expected to teach “grown ups” in college, but there is something deeply flawed in this idea. It suggests that I expected my students would enter the classroom having “grown” already (as if any of us are are ever finished growing while we are alive) having gone “up” as far as they could without support. I expected that I could open the door and let them crawl around for a while, standing by of course for moral support, doing my best to keep them at a safe distance from dangerous territory, until they figured out how to grab onto something and climb their way up and out.
For a while now, I have been so concentrated on my disappointment that I haven’t been able to move past it. I’ve been stuck doing little baby crunches with an annoyed look on my face looking for a way up (and maybe out, too).
I have not done a very good job of making them feel good about their efforts, either. “Life is hard,” I think I said.
And it’s true, that “life is hard.” At least, this has been true in my life. How many of them at eight years old had to corral their dancing mother through the grocery store, pushing the cart and convincing her to put back the candy and candied cereal because we couldn’t afford it? How many of them at seven, walked into the living room to find her holding her breath on the floor so we could practice calling 911 if mommy was dead? How many of them found themselves, in one moment a step behind her, glancing up at the canopy of golden leaves, and in the next, alone and lost so that they could practice being lost “just in case.”
How many drafts have I had to go through in trying to explain the difficult learning that has happened in my life. Have I explained it yet? I have spent nearly 30 years drafting this learning into existence, and yet I expected they might be able to do it in a matter of three weeks? What an idiot.
But does it matter? Does any of it matter at all?
Maybe. It might help them to understand that when I say “life is hard,” what I mean is that I know how difficult it is to feel lost and alone, and that there is another side to everything if we look hard enough. That I have confidence in them to be strong, because I have had to be strong. That I know it is hard to trust yourself, to do away with or learn from our inner doubts. That anything, anyone, can be our teacher if we let it.
I care about their success, despite having done a shitty job of letting them know it. Do I care more than they do? Is this really the problem? When I asked them the first week why they were here, many of them said, “Because it’s required.” But this is not a reason to do anything. Children might accept that “because I said so” is a reason for getting something done, but they are not children. At least, I don’t think of them that way, despite being told again and again that they are “nervous, scared, sensitive babies” who need to be treated gently.
I haven’t learned yet how to hold my armor in one hand and be gentle at the same time. Have any of us?
But it does matter to me, despite my wanting it not to matter, how they feel. Even if their efforts didn’t eventually get them where they wanted to go, there were some remarkable successes.
So many of them wrote real, vulnerable, important stories that need to be told and heard. So many of them make real efforts to write, showing me their photocopied journaling, the hard and personal and ongoing work that brought them as far as they could go for now. And already, I can see they are getting stronger. I know that soon, they won’t need me to pull them up so they can see how successful they have already been.
But we aren’t there yet.
So now what? There is still a lot of hard work today and tomorrow and the next to be done before we are finished. And if they still want to finish me off by then, they can do so on the final evaluation. But for now, I’ll try to be a better teacher.
That’s enough learning for today. Class dismissed.