May has been much, much, much at school and I am grateful for it.
I’ve struggled to understand my students in this first year back teaching. They feel not only inherently different from the students I used to teach, but inherently different from me. It takes me longer to really see them than it used to. In the last few months I’ve taken to reminding myself that the world in which they’re coming of age is quite different than the one in which I was fifteen and seventeen. History—the kind that will be written in books—has happened in the meantime and their perceptions of life and fairness and value and the way things should be are sometimes alien to me.
I’ve cared for them and enjoyed them, but I’ve felt a gulf between us, a gulf which not only seems difficult to cross, but which I haven’t been entirely sure that I want to. I’ve sometimes fallen into annoyance and frustration rather than choosing the patience required by love.
But May has been a slow pulling together of the pieces. I gave a talk in chapel in which I was honest because that is the way I know how to be. My little all-boy class held an NFL-style draft for which elderly residents at the nursing home they’d be matched up with before we embarked on an interview project. The school launched a house system, my freshmen drew the nine circles of Dante’s hell, and some of the boys in my AP class performed “Man of Constant Sorrow” for me for extra credit. And student after anxious student recited Psalm 90, eyes boring into the carpet, then glancing up to me for reassurance.
All these things have been tackle ropes thrown across that gulf, hooking into the soft flesh beneath my armor and tugging the cliff of me and the cliff of my students nearer to one another, inch by definite inch.
I’ve had proper sit down conversations with a few kids this week, some of whom I haven’t even taught yet, and have been struck by the individual complexity and openness of their questions, how good it is to laugh with them. I now find myself wanting to feel gently towards them. I want to see their humanness, the lines around their eyes that Graham Greene talks about in The Power and the Glory. When I watch them stumble, I want to choose grief over irritation, love over easy dismissal.
And last week I wandered around a secret place on campus, a place on which for the last twenty years most graduating seniors have had the chance to make their mark. My own seventeen-year-old self is there with my classmates, as well as the upperclassmen I was once awestruck by and many of the boisterous kids I taught myself, all of us immortalized at that odd and painful wonder of a moment, on the cusp of we-knew-not-what.
So many things were felt in that place and then pressed into it in felt-tipped marker with immediate eagerness: joy, confidence, cynicism, vulgarity, wisdom, wildness, complacence, nostalgia. And every feeling expressed by those youthful hearts and hands, from before me all the way to after, promises loudly in that place to last forever. In the deep convictions of our emotions, we did not, a single one of us, really understand how much we would change. We considered our words to be final.
There was an extremity in our certainty, in our hope, in all our desires which demanded fulfillment in permanent ink. And God at all times and in all moments stood watching us in that place, a resounding magnetic force, drawing the true desire rooted deep in each of us toward his center.
So here I am, tired and content on a Friday after oral exams, digesting the assurance that my world is not so distanced from that of my students as I thought. The cacophony of the teenage years, its extremity, its color, the rawness of its desire for more and better has always been and will always be. May is much, much, much, and so are they.