By the time I was in the third grade, in thrall to the eccentric Mrs. Nina Williamson who taught us our multiplication tables and read Thornton W. Burgess to us after lunch each day, I had decided that I wanted to be just like her–a teacher. When I was a freshman in college–even though I was a pre-med student at the time–I finally understood why. My English class read an essay by a Columbia professor who had refused to cancel his classes during the student strikes of 1968; despite his support of the students’ causes, he explained, he could not allow his political beliefs to imperil the ability to use his “longing to impart,” which he called “the soul of the teacher.” I recognized that longing and adopted it as my raison d’être during the long years during which I waited for my place behind the lectern and my office in the halls of academe.
I finally have that office, and all my students know that a lectern is NOT a podium (and why). Along with the shelves full of favorite books, the artsy black-and-white photographs I printed myself in the darkroom, and even a seemingly self-sufficient plant, I brought with me the longing to impart. But sometimes I forget where I put it amidst all those professorial trappings. My goals get derailed and my vocation, muffled by students who flagrantly plagiarize their essays, colleagues who spend their office hours grousing in the hallway, and administrators who value retention over education.
But fortunately, something always happens to refresh my perspective. I discover passion for a new topic and see it reflected in the work of my students. A former student, now in graduate school, visits me in the office and tells me that her professors were impressed with her knowledge of APA documentation style. Or sometimes I get an email.
On the same day earlier this month, I received two:
Sunday 11/12, 2:50 PM
Hi Mrs.Derka. around 2:00 am saturday, I was shot in the head. I’m okay now And I’m recovering in the hospital. IWill not be able to make it_to class for 2 weeks. I_wont Be able to do any work either. If you have any questions feel free to call me! Thank you.
Sun 11/12, 9:27 PM
Hello Mrs.Derka, sorry to get in touch with you so late. You most likely saw i had not turn in my homework this week. I know it seems very irresponsible from me. I am aware i get 10 points deducted everyday its late. I want to let you knows my reason so that way you could just know where im coming from in my lacking. My husband got deported Wednesday morning.. and it has got the best of me. I am going through a time right know with just thinking what im gonna do and its just too much. I will be turning in my paper tommorow (11-13). And how many days can we miss in your class? I know it cant be many because we meet once a week. I have missed one time, and if its possible i will have to go to atlanta next monday really depends on the class days miss policy and if i can get approve to do a visitation. Thank you for your time..
Reading these messages humbled me and chastened me. Glimpsing these moments of pain in the lives of two young women renewed my gratitude for the calling that allows me to be a small part of two lives gone horribly wrong. I accept their emailed messages as gifts of grace, reminders that it is a privilege to touch the lives of others in whatever small ways I can. My perspective has been put right, the longing to impart can flourish, and I recognize anew that the soul of a teacher must first be a soul full of love.
Moved–heartbroken, even–by the two stories, I shared them with my colleague across the hall. Her response jolted me: “You never know if you’re in class or on the Jerry Springer show.”
And then I read the first message to an even more jaded colleague. She snarled her own callous perspective back at me: “She’s probably a stripper. Didn’t you read about those five people shot at that ‘gentlemen’s club’ this weekend?” I didn’t even give her the opportunity to point out that people who lie down with illegal immigrants wake up with ICE agents agents knocking at their doors.
I will not allow these cynical perspectives to skew my own.
I have not heard again from the first young woman, but her mother has communicated with all her instructors, letting us know that two weeks was far too optimistic; her daughter will be restricted for at least four to six weeks. I looked the student up on Facebook, where she has posted, “Even though I can’t go back to my classes until I get these staples out of my head, I’m def going to be doing as much classwork as I can before I go back. I don’t want to be too far behind.” These words aren’t empty promises to teachers who might happen upon her profile on social media. She is the best student in our class, and her accomplished essays reveal that these fifteen minutes of fame are not her first brush with darkness. She wrote a beautiful and moving narrative essay about the death of the sister who raised her on the mean streets of New York City. And in her next essay, she delineated convincing examples of incidents when she was stereotyped because of the tattoos she wears to express her artistic personality. She is a singer and a make-up artist and a beautiful and articulate young woman, and I will give her every opportunity I can to succeed in my class.
My other correspondent came to class on Monday. Still shattered, she had not done her homework. But she waited for me outside after class to say thank you. She told me the whole story. Her husband had already been convicted of two speeding offenses when he got another ticket. He showed up at court and was whisked off by immigration officers to a detention center in Georgia. She went to Georgia to visit him; there, she saw an attorney who advised her to go to Mexico to collect some needed documents and then told her on her return that there was nothing he could do. Her husband’s case is apparently open and shut. Her family, owners of a small restaurant that serves ceviche on styrofoam plates, are supportive, but they are here in North Carolina. When the student started to speak of leaving them to be with her husband in Mexico, her eyes became red and filled with tears; she smiled and said, “I promise you I won’t cry.” And then she reached up and hugged me, thanking me over and over again–but for what? All I can do is give her an extension on her annotated bibliography. And hug her back.