Hugs and Life

There is meaning in a hug—and hugs can be verbal, not just physical. This is what I’ve learned in my few years as a high school English teacher. This notion guides me as I maneuver through this hypersensitive time period in schools when even sideways hugs or complimentary pats on the back are scrutinized.  Though there might be tremendous, and even necessary, restrictions on human caring, I like to challenge myself to address this idea of how to show students that we, teachers, really care, and that they, students, truly matter to us.

It sounds cheesy to us, perhaps, to say that “we care” or that “someone matters” because we’re living in times of cynicism and distrust.  I reflected on this dilemma last August as I began the year with multiple intelligence surveys and interpersonal activities to “get to know” my students.

How can I tell them, I brainstormed, without sounding cheesy, that their smiles and frowns matter; their puzzled and inquisitive brows matter; their sighs and chuckles and complaints—matter to me, and guide my daily teaching? Indeed, every caring teacher will consent to the fact that the  verbals and nonverbals of her/his students get packed away and shuffled home, along with grading and lesson plans, to be analyzed and strategically reworked for the next day.

So, after issuing a three-page syllabus to my 11th Grade AP/IB Language students on Day 2 of last school year, following introductory exercises and “get to know you’s” (as all teachers in our department are advised to do), I noticed that my students were flipping their noses and contorting their faces into the “I don’t care—she must not care, either look.”  So, I decided to write them a poem that would let them know how much I cared.

Night Letter to My Students

I jolt from slumber, and begin the day’s ascent

A sprinter on the track,

A bloom reaching for the sun,

only to stand in my pjs

an ordinary teacher

enveloped by mini mountains of papers and books.

If I were eighteen, I might be pondering

the colors of my nail polish,

and the true meaning of the text message that my friend just sent me,

and the cruelty of a snooze button that won’t last for eternity.

But as it is, I am simply awake,

a teacher in pjs, thought-full

still sensing your distress from the day before

and the furrowing of your brows

and the immensity of the accelerated tasks before us.

The apple cinnamon candles lull me forward

from slumber to coffee, from oatmeal to lunch-packing

and I rampage the kitchen to soothe the morning hunger mountains in my belly.

iTunes have follow me out and down the porch steps

and humming them, I start the engine thinking

It’s a Beautiful Day as Morning’s Potential curls her lips into a smile.

The smell of my mums

waves good luck as I’m off to Our Garden

of classics and classes and clases de classicus…

and there’s something about the street lights

torching against the darkness that makes me emboldened

to continue goading you to torch brightly, effervescently

but perhaps you aren’t even listening

perhaps the droll or daunting of the day, of so many dreams

has you checked-out or singing a different tune—

specs of chalk dust, flecks of markers and pen ink

and she wants us to have binders?

But this is

all that I want to do—

Tell you that in all of this…apples and dust, classics and classes…

and binders

There is meaning, I promise.

–Ms. Thomas

After reading this poem to my students, I noticed that some of them opened up—not, I believe, as a result of any poetic devices or exquisite linguistics, but because I opened up to them and made my caring transparent and personal.  The rest of that initial week of school, I heard fewer moans and groans about books and early lessons, and I even received a few statements of appreciation from them.

So what did I learn from this fifteen minute homework exercise for myself, and the fifteen minutes that it took to share this simplistic poem with my students?  I learned that caring for another is not a manufactured process or action.  It is organic; it is a way of living and breathing each day, hoping for positive results from selfless efforts. This is serving; this is teaching.

This year, as I approach the first weeks of school again, I am smiling—looking forward to the new poem that I will create, and the new bridges that I’ll be able to form with my students, which are centered on genuine caring and serving.  I’m hoping that once again, I will smile as I see some of my students put the new poem in the front cover of the binders that originally groaned about purchasing. Indeed, I’m thrilled that I’ve discovered that such small actions can yield welcomed rewards. It didn’t cost me anything to open up to them, or to show my caring, and the teaching pay-offs were absolutely worth it.