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Teaching a lesson on skin color with my students

It hits me mid-lesson. Two weeks into the school year. I’ve spent the entire month of August setting up my classroom, preparing unit plans, rehearsing lessons, structuring my schedule so that everything goes just right, drilling procedures into my students day after day from the moment they arrive to the daily goodbye, and tirelessly calling parents to establish student-family connections, and then it hits me. The predictable existential crisis. I pause in the middle of a lesson and look around at the snotty-nosed, fidgety mess of little bodies playing with their shoelaces in front of me, and I think to myself, “What the heck am I doing with my life?”

Some teachers naturally love the children in their classroom. I am not one of those teachers. Each year, as I meet the new army of youngsters that I’ve been tasked with educating, I secretly stifle a feeling of dismay as I realize that I’m inexorably stuck with this brood of germs for the next ten months of my life. The summer feels eternally distant.

And then something else happens. A different crisis.

This year it hit me a few weeks into January when a student misbehaved in the hallway. I yelled at her — the first time I’ve truly yelled the entire year — and sent her to sit in silence at my table. Several minutes later I delivered yet another reprimand and forced her to walk the entire length of the hallway over again.

By the time she reached the end of her death march, this five-year-old child wore a scowl uglier than the worst of my teacher-looks. She was angry. I was angry. And likely the whole school had heard me yelling. As I knelt down to look her in the eyes and deliver a final summary of what she ought to learn from this experience, I discovered a different set of words on my lips:

“Are you okay?”

A soft moan edged past her mouth, and her bottom lip began to tremble. One tear and then another stained her cheeks, and she broke down into sobs. I held her in my arms as her tears soaked my shoulder, and I softly said, “Did you know that I love you?”

My students hear me say this every day, but saying it now felt different, and her sobs broke out even louder as I spoke the words. “I love you. Did you know that?”

In these moments I realize that my students and I are learning something that is not included in my unit plans or standards. The child who looked at me like I was Bloody Mary at the beginning of the year now rests in my arms and says “I love you” back. And I find, to my shock, that I really love her too. I’m no longer just saying it. I’m meaning it. I find my own eyes filling up with it.

It’s a gradual shift, taking place over months of anxious work, difficult interactions, exciting highs and equally disappointing lows, but it feels very dramatic when I finally wake up one morning and discover I have an answer to the crisis that afflicted me at the beginning of the first semester. What the heck am I doing with my life? I’m learning how to love. It is the best thing that I could ever do with my life, and it is the one thing that I must learn anew every day of every year.

I love my students. Every single one of them. If I could go back and talk to my beginning-of-the-year self, I would tell her, “You just don’t know it yet.”

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