I always have the kids write me letters to introduce themselves, and as the years have gone on, I give them less and less direction. “Whatever you think I ought to know about you, whatever you’re comfortable sharing,” I say. “Likes and dislikes, your family– whatever.”
Some students start with statistics: I am this old. This is my birthday. I am this tall. Some even tell me how much they weigh (football players and wrestlers, I think). Some tell me their astrological sign, as if I’m going to be running star charts.
Some immediately list their wounds: these are the relatives I have lost. My family is messed up, but I am okay.
Others sound defensive: my family is healthy. We are middle class. My parents have important jobs.
I really like when they write, “I don’t like writing,” or “I don’t like reading.” Honesty is good.
I also like all the ones that say things like, “I don’t like it when people lie,” or “I hate when people ask me to treat them with respect, but they don’t respect me.” Yeah, that sucks. And there’s a story there, probably about a teacher. Everyone has a big load of baggage from their school career, and I get to peek in before the last few stories get packed in.
I’m not going to solve their problems. I may never even hear their greatest traumas and fears. Or they may continue to wrestle with them, in writing, in class discussions. And I might recognize that, or I might not.
It still weighs on me, their stories and their voices. It weighs on me that I am such a prominent character in their story, for the moment anyway. And it’s odd that the teacher character part of me is only one aspect of my personality. That one part, that one section, is projected into My Teacher. I make her the kindest, fairest, most demanding character I can. But she’s as shaky and inconsistent and limited as any other human.
Today, while they were writing their letters, I noticed a wasp on the window by my desk. Two years ago, I had a kid who was really tall and always volunteered to kill my wasps. Three or four sneak in every year. They love that corner of the building. I was missing him when I saw the one today. Once I had even pulled him out of chemistry class to do his thing. The teacher didn’t mind, and he certainly didn’t, either.
I didn’t know who of the new kids would be calm, quick, and make a quick kill. So I just watched the wasp and pondered. He ducked his head underneath the Shakespeare sonnet that I had taped to the window, and I realized he was safely trapped. I picked up a heavy grammar textbook, laid it against the sonnet, and pressed him dead. I pulled back, and he fell onto the windowsill. I’m sure I gasped. Ew.
It’s like putting a baby to sleep, getting a class to absorb themselves in their work. Once you get them lulled, you tiptoe and watch and keep them there as long as possible. No one noticed my kill. They were all way inside their heads, picking and choosing what to lay out for me to see.