This morning, I was reminded of something that I want to share with you. It took place some seventeen years ago, while I was beginning my teaching career.
I amerced myself deeply into a poetry unit. Inspired by the powerful lessons of Mr. John Keating, I assigned the students the arduous task of writing original poetry, in the hopes of starting my own Dead Poets Society.
Ten of them.
I forced my students to write poetry. A somewhat dormant exercise that seems to die shortly after kindergarten. There is just no money in it.
I made them even more uncomfortable by announcing that there would be a culminating poetry reading, to celebrate their uncomfortable struggle. They eventually understood my madness, and seemed to embrace their moment.
They were forbidden to clap, but were encouraged to snap their fingers in approval. They had to pick their favourite poem. Read it out loud. Do their best to present their favourite composition to their peers.
The class of thirty students did not disappoint.
There were many memorable poems, and some not so great ones. Some forgettable, and some that were unforgettable.
The last student to read her poem, was one of the top students in my class, and she wrote an unforgettable composition.
It is always great to end on a high note and I couldn’t wait, because I knew it would be good.
She walked timidly to the front of the class. She took her place on the spot that where one of her classmates had once stood. Paper in hand. Eyes down. And she began to read.
She read the first two lines and started to cry.
She frantically wiped the tears from her eyes and started again.
She read from the beginning, and this time she didn’t fare any better.
Two lines into her composition, she began to cry again.
This was agonizing. We all felt extremely uncomfortable. We wanted to run and hide, but were locked in our spots.
She looked up from her paper, and with her eyes still full of tears, she asked if it was ok that she sat down. I reassured her that it was fine. The bell rang. We were saved by the bell.
The next day I thought nothing more about her tears. I was ready to begin a new unit and a new journey, when suddenly I saw a hand that rose in the back of the room.
“I know this has nothing to do with the next unit, but do you mind Sir, if I read my poem again, I think I am better and ready”, she said.
How do you say no?
She walked to the front of the class, and once again, she began reading her poem, and just like yesterday, her tears began to flood her face.
She looked up.
“I’m sorry. One more time”.
This time she read the whole poem. She cried through every word. Yet she somehow managed to find the strength to finish
The poem was about her younger brother. He was a happy little boy, but his life was suddenly cut short, when he secretly hid behind his dad’s truck, and his father unknowingly crushed him to death, while he was pulling out of the driveway to go to work.
I was speechless. Uncomfortable. Choked up, with tears in my eyes.
I don’t remember teaching anything that day. I mean, how can you? How can you just go on with the minutia of useless information, when a young brave woman teaches you a lesson you will never forget. Some of my University professors didn’t have a fraction of this young woman’s elegance and eloquence.
A week later or so, my soul continued to be deeply troubled. The whole experience left me searching for so many answers.
When we had a quiet moment after a lesson, I called her over and asked her why she was so determined to read the poem she wrote about her brother. Why she was willing to risk being so vulnerable in front of all her peers.
Every student I have ever taught has never failed to surprise me. Some of them may be broken or reluctant learners. Some may already be ready to make an impact on our broken world.
They all have so much to teach us. They sit in front of me every day, and unequivocally shape the person I am.
She was very open with me.
She told me that it was extremely difficult on her and her whole family when they lost her brother. She loved him so much and missed him even more.
She never intended to cry at all, but when she started so was so overwhelmed by her own words, that she felt she could almost feel her brother’s presence.
She had not felt this kind of connection since his funeral, while day by day, night by night, she moved on with her life, forgetting her brother ever so slowly.
His life was becoming a distant memory. A fact on a shelf. Remember on special occasions, but she wanted to feel him every day.
She told me that despite her tears, she had to finish. She didn’t care what she looked like or what she sounded like. She didn’t care how uncomfortable we all were as a class, what we were feeling or what we thought of her.
At that moment, she was present, and made her brother come alive again.
She was once again reunited with him, and did not want to miss this opportunity that brought him back to life.
So often we run from our emotions. So often, we hide our tears, but what if we didn’t?
What if we let the tears flow? If we let ourselves feel? See? Remember?
How glorious life would be if we allowed ourselves to be taught by children and young ladies that live without pretending.
I get paid to teach, and do magical things with words, but I will be forever grateful to the many lessons I have been taught over the years, by my students…
and all, free of charge.