The Balancing Act: Teaching Openly in the Humanities

One of the hardest things about teaching is the acting.

When you have a weekend, or even just a night, where certain situations push you to emotional exhaustion, or even go so far as changing you, putting an eternal dent in your identity. And then, you suddenly find yourself sitting in front of a class, wondering how to bring the pieces of your mind together. How to convince them that you’re okay when a rush of thoughts are occurring in your head, and your heart sinks into your chest. When you have to remain in the present for them, but the sensation of falling is pulling you backward.

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How do you calm yourself in front of an audience of thirty kids?

Kids who you love and respect. Who look to you for guidance. Ask for support. Watch every move you make. Notice the chipped paint on your nails and the exhaustion in your eye.

Composure, in the present moment. That was the first thing I learned. To maintain ethos, to maintain the line between teacher and student, I had to act.

One day, I was teaching a lesson on Greene’s the Destructors, when one of my kids blurted out that a student at the college had killed himself. I paused for a moment, attempting to figure out the best course of action for our discussion. Yet, instead of thinking of how to best guide my class, I stopped. My mind flashed to my friend Kenneth, who took his own life when I was a freshman in college. I remember how I felt when my roommate told me the news, as I dropped my groceries all over the floor and sank to the ground in her arms. It wasn’t real. He was fine. He was fine. And then, the self-defense of numbness kicked in.

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I thought of the call my mother got the night before I graduated from college. That my Godmother, her best friend, shot herself and was unconscious in the hospital. How careful she was in talking to me about the situation. How strong she was in guiding me away from the trap of selfish anger—away from the questions: “How could you do this? How could you stain one of the milestones of life with grief?” I remembered how my mother hid her sadness because she did not want anyone else to bare it. I felt my eyes begin to water for the student who took his life, for loved ones, for the pain my kids felt, but then I looked up and to see all of my students staring silently at me.

I stopped my thought process and looked around the room, gauging the situation. Some students doodled, ignoring my invasive eye contact. But others looked to me in anxiety, grief, or confusion. My recollection of memories, though brief, took my mind elsewhere.

But I needed to be like my mother.

I needed to focus on them. Be outside of myself. This situation was their own. Grief, death, destruction—all of these things are things we must talk about, because despite the fact they are uncomfortable, they are a part of all of us. As educators, part of our responsibility is to help students grasp and understand. As humans, part of our responsibility is to realize that we are social creatures. That boxing emotions is the opposite of therapy and is a disadvantage to empathy. That these things, are what holistically make us human. And that maybe, as an educator, it was okay to flash that side of myself from time to time.

My student’s anecdote was relevant to our current conversation about Greene, and I decided to pursue it. Why do we destroy? This question, in its raw form, shakes the comfortable boundaries surrounding our perceived nature. If we can discuss it in literature, we can discuss it in life. The line between the two are blurry anyway, and when they come together… that’s when literature is at its most relevant.

“Did anyone know him personally?” I asked, legitimately curious.

Some silent nods around the room. Grief training 101: be honest with the students, bring up situations and positive stories, talk about it. Talk about it.

“What was he like?”

The room erupted into talks of gatherings and events. Smiles occurred when they spoke of him uni-cycling through campus. His volunteer work. His goals. His life. His vulnerability.

“He was just a really, really great guy. I’m so happy that I got to know him,” one of my girls said, the intonation in her voice reverberating like a brass instrument.

“Me too,” another echoed from the back. “He got me into cycling.”

And that was the light bulb moment for us—the confluence of all of our thoughts. By directly addressing loss, we also addressed creation, impact, and life. I smiled with gratitude—in appreciation of the lovely brains of my students. Of their willingness to share emotions that seemed ineffable only moments ago. Of Kenneth, and my Godmother, and the influence they both had on my life. Of those rare moments, when sadness and grief flash their silver lining of purpose. They build us. Their very existence creates the foundation for their opposites.

Humanity’s perception of death is such an interesting thing. Keats once mused on how lucky birds were, as they were not aware of death’s lurking presence; they flutter and sing immortal songs. They mate and die and the cycle continues.portrait_of_keats_listening_to_a_nightingale_on_hampstead_heath

Humans are unique for many reasons, one of which involves our ability to comprehend death. And yet… there is a dissonance in how we approach passing. We mimic birds, pretending we are unaware of life’s fragility until we are forced to digest it. It’s that same fleeting, sinking feeling you get when you’re driving down the highway and you see a cross on the side of the road. “It’s happened here before,” you think. “But not to me.”

Talking about these things makes them real—that’s why it is not comfortable. But these moments and discussions also allow us to help prepare our students, and even ourselves, for some of the hardest aspects of life. To embrace them. To witness the ebb-and-flow of life. That yes, death happens. It happens silently and sporadically, or thunderously and slowly. But because of this we have a reason to be thankful. To grasp life. To love others unconditionally because out of all of the chances and statistics that person has been placed in your life. Out of all of the chances and statistics, your life is your life. And that out of all of these experience that seem so solitary, we are not alone.

Perhaps then, the hardest thing about teaching, and life, is the balancing act. Between the self and the leader. The guide and the human. When do we bring ourselves and our lives into the classroom, and when should we leave them out? Despite standards, I think it’s important to allow ourselves to teach a bit of humanity now and then. And sometimes the only way to do that is to drop the act, because when we do, our students do as well.

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