Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

31 August 2011

Thanksgiving in August: Special Students

For my last post in this series, I have been wanting to post about how grateful I am for my students. Frequently in academic writing a book will have an acknowledgments section that lists all of the people for whom the writer is grateful. Almost always this list includes a kind of perfunctory nod toward the author's students. (It isn't always perfunctory, of course.) As a graduate student I am always a little skeptical of this small bit of gratitude. I know how much teachers try out ideas in the classroom and sometimes how those ideas are then worked out in the class through dialogue between the teacher and the student. There is much give-and-take in these situations, and sometimes ideas students have are incorporated into the teacher's thinking – this is often so seamless or so much like a laboratory situation, that the teacher can forget what were his ideas and what were the students'.

Very often, too, I forget who was in which class and when. Reading this series should have made it clear to anyone that my memory is often flawed and contains many spaces where I cannot remember things I wish I could. I can remember the recent classes – especially the ones I designed myself – very well, I think. Their populations are very clear in my head because we had to work through very particular and peculiar problems (one class related to avant-garde performance, one to sexuality, and the latest one to violence). But there are some students who stick out in my mind, who have meant more to me, and whom I have particularly adopted as special. My major professor once said to me that it is very easy to read my affect in the classroom, that it is clear to my students who my favorites are, who I love and with whom I am frustrated. I am not sure this is very true anymore. I am, I think, a bit of a mystery to most of my students, and that is probably a good thing as an instructor (though I am sure that many of them are very familiar – and bored by or frustrated with – my habits). I have had two students for four separate classes, and I imagine both Perry and Jordan can read me fairly well at this point.

Teaching has been for me, since 2002 or so, the thing in my life that has nourished me the most. When I began teaching voice in a small way in the acting studio at Cal Poly, I know that something really shifted in me. I tell the story frequently of being introduced as a guest faculty member at Cal Poly by our beloved chair Bill Morse at some kind of informational introductory meeting of the department in 2003. I felt a kind of belonging that I hadn't known before. Later that week, I was talking to a student named Courtney who was having trouble deciding between two things. I really wanted her to do one of those things, but the other one was really better for her in her place in life. We talked for a long while and I helped her so that she would be able to do either one of the options very well and then I got out of the way. I consider this moment a turning point in my life because it was then that I realized part of what it means to teach: to let the student be the student and to make one's own self smaller so that she can be who she needs to be. Whenever I am able to do this (and it is not easy) the student often does better than I had ever hoped.

But this post is supposed to be about me being grateful, and so what I mean to say here is that I am grateful for what my students so often have to teach me, which is to be smaller, to make myself less important, to spend more time listening.

Some students have become more special than others, of course. My Sexuality & Representation class last year was perhaps the most pleasurable teaching experience I have ever had. Those students – Laura, Stephen, Katie, Jackie, Joey, Amber, Jenny, Ryan, Cameron, Perry, Stephanie, Ross, Chelsea, Sarah – are really special to me. My Violence, Ethics & Representation class this semester is also filled with students whom I love, most of whom I have had as students before – Mackenzie, Morgan, Julien, Jordan, Sam, Emily, Camille, Madeline, Ashley, Mallory, Liz, Matt, Adwin, and Kat – teaching them is a real pleasure, and I am loving it so far.

The best, though, and the students for whom I am most grateful, are the ones who have kept in contact with me after leaving school. The most difficult part of teaching has been, for me, letting go of students. So frequently they leave and one never hears from them again. And this letting go – understanding that some students need to cut ties and go off and do things – is hard to learn how to do, but an important lesson!

So the students who still contact me after they leave mean a great deal to me because I don't have to let them go, I can still keep up with their lives, and most importantly, I can remain proud of them in an active kind of way. So, I am especially grateful to Charlie S., Jenny M., Katie S., Anthony P., Jackie V., Sean D., and Kalon T, and their commitments to keeping in touch with me. I am so so proud of Ashley C., Al H., Shane B., Smyra Y., Marisa M., and Stefond J., and truly excited for their work and their futures. They are all working hard and even when they're having trouble they stay strong. I am so grateful for the notes these young people send my way, and the encouragement and love they show me even now that they are out from under my thumb as their teacher. Students such as these have been such a wonderful gift to me, and I cannot begin to be thankful enough for the way they have touched my life.

I want also to mention five students who have really come to love like my own kids. As a man who probably will never be a father, it has been amazing to have students who have adopted me, in even a small way, as their honorary dad (actually Stephanie calls me mom). It feels good to be able to invest in some kids a little more than I normally would in a student, to be just a little bit prouder of them than the rest, to encourage and love them just a little more. I am especially grateful, then, for Jackie and Dexter and Jordan and Dayne and Stephanie. Thank you for being amazing and wonderful, and letting me into your lives. I am so proud of you and look forward to the fabulous futures you will all have.

...And I suppose it is fitting that this series, which has been, frequently about the past, about origins and beginnings (though it really was always about the present), moves toward the future. I am so thankful for everything my students do for me, for their grace and their brilliance and their patience and their energy. And I feel truly privileged to be able to look into what will come – what has not happened yet – and wish that they are granted everything they desire.