Teaching is a Laborious Magic

I could never have imagined the radical joy of being a part of another individual’s growth. It is profound, literally on par with the feelings I feel when one of my friends has a baby and I meet the new being that joined our chosen family. Socrates, or Plato through his ‘Socrates,’ was allegedly fond of using the analogy of midwifery to describe teaching. It isn’t as wild as it seems, it turns out.

I’m not helping anyone through actual labor pangs, but I have helped several young people through growing pains, intellectual and social, within and outside the classroom. And I’m there by each student’s side through fourteen or so weeks of (often intense) intellectual challenge. It isn’t always pleasant in the moment, like anytime I hand back a round of first drafts—it’d be great fun if only I took pleasure at seeing faces fall and feeling an icy wall build between me and another person; but development is never Instagram Ready. Even the InstaQueens and InstaKings sweat it out in my classroom without social media appeal. But that’s what it is to be alive.

To be allowed in by a student for those moments of growth is an extreme honor: to allow another to guide you at those moments means opening oneself up to vulnerability in the presence of another. Vulnerability is not easy.

That vulnerability is one major reason why I was always such a bad student and probably at least part of the reason why I was usually so standoffish as a student in a class but immediately before and afterwards I was my chill(ish) self… I don’t do vulnerable (or at least not without a significant proof of trust): ‘vulnerable’ literally means ‘able to be wounded’ (from Latin uulnerabilis from uulnus, uulneris, n. ‘wound,’ equivalent to the Greek trauma(ta) ‘wound(s)’), and I am literally not able to be wounded anymore and I refuse to enable anymore trauma to occur while I witness it silently.

On the plus side, I suppose, since I’m so painfully aware of vulnerability and growth, I am always trying to stay mindfully ahead of myself to make sure I’m always honoring that trust implicit in opening up fully enough for self-development. It is my job to lead the room into creating a space of mutual respect and earnest curiosity.

I’m always amazed anew every semester I teach by the mix of perspectives especially. Even given the same prompt, none of my students has ever written exactly the same response. Even with the same points, there are so many differences, both obvious and subtle.

I love witnessing discovery/realization, that Aha Moment when things click into place, connections are suddenly forged, and lucidity replaces the murk of their previous expression. Usually there’s a kind of smile, often small, occasionally larger. I can feel the energy (or whatever) shifting, from vague confusion toward rich understanding.

It’s true, though, I definitely push my students harder than most. “They’re not graduate students!” exclaimed a professor for whom I was teaching three sections of their lecture (apparently having received a complaint or two from my students(?)). 🤷‍♂️ Well, no, they may not be graduate students, but damn it what is the job of an educator, especially in higher education, other than to foster critical thinking in the youth entrusted to them? So I push my students to think more critically about the arguments they make in their papers, pushing back on faulty ideas and exposing the weaknesses of their claims.

Some of them get what I’m doing right away, and I can feel this incredible energy build around us of rapid absorption, of being followed closely in word and thought by my interlocutor: it is the energy of comprehension and it is magical.

Others are completely uninterested in being challenged and refuse it entirely. I respect that too, but it’s never stopped me from continuing to push, planting little seeds deep in the recesses of nagging memories to be re-encountered someday, hopefully with added clarity as a result.

Still others don’t quite understand what my pushing is meant to do and they take it for an ad hominem dressing down, which requires a good deal of cognitive energy on my end to untangle, but I do my best. These students have often come around by the end of the semester.

Others are more like me and are already pushing themselves in their own thought without my intervention, though I still push back every once in a while. These are the students of my dreams, whose time in my classroom I will cherish for ever.

One of these students, from my first batch of Freshman five falls ago, graduated last spring and got into Harvard!!!! I don’t personally care to obsess over a university’s prestige, but I can’t help knowing what that means to other people, and how huge an achievement it really is for a first-generation American woman of color. I am so crazy proud of her!!!! And I can’t help feeling maybe just a teeeeeensy bit of satisfaction for having had a hand in her growth as a Freshman on campus. I’m proud of all my students, because they’re all phenomenal human beings with a profound capacity to change the world for the better if they so choose, but maybe I’m just a wee bit extra proud of that student, which is honestly a feeling of bliss more potent than any pride I’ve ever felt in my own accomplishments.

I guess that high school English teacher I adore was right after all: I am a teacher. She kept trying to tell me I’d be teaching, and we even worked out an independent study that we only sort of took seriously, except that it taught me to study how teachers teach because I got to sit there while she taught with the idea of teaching on my mind. Actually I just realized that. Before then I never thought about how a teacher was teaching. Hell, in honest fact, I almost never even knew what a teacher was trying to teach me—except in algebra, chemistry, English, and those one or two glorious weeks at the start of world history classes when they’d talk about the ancient Mediterranean world. It’s only for the educators (professors mostly) in whose classes I’ve enrolled since my senior year of high school that I have much memory of studying teaching styles. Teaching myself Classical Greek over a summer by learning to teach it for a hypothetical class in my head was probably the final clue for me that actually, yeah, I am a teacher after all… But the question still open in my mind is rather of my students: am I a classroom-teacher or am I a teacher to humanity writ large? Will I teach discreet groups of students, or will I teach the world with literature? There is a follow up question, more rhetorical than that genuinely open question, Isn’t it both, silly thing? And in fact I suspect I’ll be both simultaneously, writer and professor.

And really that would be the greatest gift I could ever receive, so it is also the most dangerous thought in my head, the future I have been striving toward for 35 years already. But meanwhile, I am just enjoying the moments I have with my students while we’re in them, savoring every epiphany and celebrating every proof of growth.

Here’s to teaching!

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