It’s all smiles the first moments of the first day. There is optimism and perhaps hint of hope. New teachers. New year. A fresh start.
“I’ve heard she’s a little odd,” one says to another.
“But she’s really tough. That’s what Eric said,” another chimes in.
Next door, it’s the same story. The worries are identical. Will this be a cool teacher? Will I get along with her better than I did my last first period teacher?
“I’ve heard he’s really hard.”
“I’ve heard he’s really easy.”
Down the hall, the thoughts are the same. What will we read? What experiments will we do? Where will we go for field trips?
“I’ve heard he’s a jerk.”
“I’ve heard she’s really sweet.”
Everyone bumps around, unsure of themselves, unsure of their standing in the class, unsure of more things than they will care to admit. No one knows what to expect; no one knows whether to hope for the best or prepare for the worst.
“I’ve heard the cafeteria food is going to be better this year.”
“I’ve heard the dress code will change.”
Everything is in flux, sliding and slipping about like a ballerina on a well-greased floor. The only thing anyone has to go on is rumors and the Pop-Tart gobbled on the way to the bus stop.
And it’s all visible in the eyes, in the body language. The teacher clears her voice, signaling the beginning of the class, and everyone looks the same: shields up; defenses activated; look like a stone.
Who’s to blame them, for who is this person, this unknown, who will be an integral part of their lives for the next nine months? It’s a great poker game: no one knows if the teacher is the jackpot or three lemons. Everyone knows from experience that a great teacher can turn into a horrible ogre in a matter of days, and so everyone is afraid that it’s a front. The smile might not last; the attempts at jokes might not continue; the proposed classroom atmosphere of ease might be only an illusion.
It’s all rather like a blind date. The doorbell rings and there stands a bloke with a bouquet and a smile. The girl has her guard up and is analyzing every single thing the guy does: the jokes he cracks; the car he drives; the conversation he makes; the clothes he wears. Everything is a coded, hidden message, and the girl wants to know as soon as possible whether or not to text her friend who agreed to call her and speak in a loud, frantic voice about the impending emergency that she must, simply must, come and help with.
“I’m so sorry. I have to go. My friend’s cat is stuck in the dryer.”
If only it were that simple, for this date will last nine months. It’s a first date, a blind date, that’s the length of a pregnancy. And as with a pregnancy, there is nothing a friend can wildly scream over a cell phone, no emergency so great that it can end the date. And yet, the girl ponders, perhaps it won’t be so bad. After all, her cousin ended up marrying a guy she met on a blind date.
So the girl eases into the car and the students ease into the desks with a bit of worry and a touch of hope. This could all turn out well. The young man might be a perfect gentleman; the teacher might be a perfect instructor and mentor. Everyone decides for a moment, for a few days, to give the guy, to give the teacher, the benefit of the doubt.
Even those who are sure the whole school is involved in a vast conspiracy to trouble and torment them through their whole education entertain the thought that this year might be different. It’s sure to turn into disaster sooner or later, they think, but maybe it won’t be that bad. Maybe it won’t even be a disaster; maybe it will just be an inconvenience.
Everyone thinks, “Let’s wait and see.”
The teacher stands in front of the classroom, sees the sea of new faces, ponders the coming nine months, and thinks exactly the same thing.
“By the end of the first quarter, this girl might end up driving me nuts,” she thinks, looking at a face in the front row. “By the end of next week,” she shutters, “That guy in the back row might make me question my dedication to teaching.” The teacher looks, and explains, and waits. Waits for the first sign.
“We will have a test on every chapter,” she begins, and she sees the troublemaker in the back row yawn and prop his head on a casually balanced fist. “Oh, it’s already started,” she thinks. “I can’t make this any more interesting than this, and he doesn’t even have the decency to…”
In truth, it’s always like this. We are individual universes, carried around by clumsy bodies that often belie our doubts and fears. We assume, judge, and act on our initial prejudices, and then wonder why everyone else does the same. But sometimes, those judgments and quick characterizations set the scene for something more significant than a blind date. We are constantly moving into and out of each others’ universes, but we very rarely have any idea when we’ve bumped into someone who will have a major impact on our lives. But such moments do exist.
The first day of class is one. Students and teachers wake up on the first day of the new school year with the same thought: “I hope this year will be better than last year.” It doesn’t matter whether the previous year was a total disaster or an unqualified success. We always want it to be better. And we all hope, students and teachers alike, that it will be better.
Then the old routines return, and the students and teachers alike find themselves wondering, “What’s going on? How did it all go wrong?”
The dilemma is much more complicated than that, because we all have different ideas of what “wrong” means. Because we’re these universes – monads, as Spinoza called them – jostling around, unable ever to understand fully the physics of each other, we’re doomed to make mistakes that we don’t even know are mistakes. We offend where no offense was meant; we anger when we’re trying to amuse; we harm when we’re trying to help.
And nowhere is this more evident, more clear, than in the classroom.
What are we to do? We don’t have instruction manuals that we can read about each other. We don’t know what each others fears and dreams are. Sometimes we don’t know what words hurt, what actions destroy. Unless we tell each other.
That’s unrealistic. No one spills her guts walking to the car on a blind date. “Listen, I had a really bad relationship with a guy who always brought me roses. I associate roses with pain, so you might not want to bring them. They only call back bad memories.” No one says, “Listen, I am very insecure with my reading, and if you ask me to read something aloud, I will do anything and everything to avoid it—even if I have to cause a scene to get thrown out of class.” No one says, “I really want to help you guys, and sometimes I get really frustrated when people don’t seem to be paying attention. Then I make sarcastic remarks because I think it should be obvious.” No one says these things, but maybe they should.
So I will say these things to you. I am here to help you. I am on your side. I wake up in the morning with the hope of somehow making your life a little better. But I am human. I get frustrated; I get tired; I get irritable. I sometimes assume you should realize things that you might not necessarily realize. I occasionally assume that you didn’t this or that because you’re lazy. I catch myself, but sometimes the damage is done. Yet that doesn’t change the fact that I’m still on your side. I still am here for you.