I dislike feeling vulnerable. This doesn’t mean that I never share my thoughts or feelings with others because I definitely do. Rather, I need it to be in a safe place. My students, generally speaking, are not that safe place. Some classes have been exceptionally open and I’ve found it easy to share my heart with them, but that is not the norm.
As far as I can remember, those classes have always been my sophomore classes. Sometimes I force myself to be vulnerable with them, though. It is difficult because: they are teenagers, they don’t understand the significance, and I feel like it places me in the position to get hurt. And I, human that I am, don’t like to be hurt.
For their final assignment, my seniors were instructed to write a paper about why they are Catholic. (Yes, it must be one whole page. Yes, it must be single-spaced. Yes, I know you don’t want to do it.) Some of them were superficial and just told me what they thought I wanted to hear. But some of them were great because they were honest. They picked things they liked about the Church but also had critiques as well, some fair and some the product of the culture that surrounds them. Yet as I read about their families and their experiences at various retreats, I was hopeful. A few shared authentic experiences and encounters they have had with God. And while they did not seem to be living from those experiences, they remembered them and knew that they were not imagined or made up.
So I decided to write a little note at the bottom of each paper, thanking them for sharing with me and encouraging them to continue to pursue the truth as they graduated high school. I’m not an overly complimentary person (ask…anyone), but I wanted to give them sincere affirmations and encouragement. To some of my challenging albeit brilliant students, I affirmed their great minds and told them to pursue truth. To the kind-hearted, I affirmed their sincerity and generosity. To yet others, I told them that God had a great plan for them and I was excited to see what it would be and where He would take them. I tried to not preach at them and I tried to be open. And after they took their finals, I passed back the papers to them.
Soon after, the bell rang and they walked out. None of them seemed to even recognize the little note that I had written at the bottom, even though I watched them read it when I handed it back to them.
I was left feeling slightly deflated and a little shy. Perhaps it was weird for a teacher to write affirmations to her students, some of whom she had never really had one-on-one conversations with. Maybe I said too much or maybe I said too little. Perhaps they simply didn’t care. One of the honest and affectionate notes that I wrote to a student went along the lines of “I’m not entirely sure why, but you have always been one of my favorites.” He walked out of the door without a glance or a goodbye.
Despite my disappointment in their reactions, I am glad I wrote what I did. It is difficult to be vulnerable, even in little ways, particularly when I am fairly certain it won’t be met with much of a response. My first year of teaching, I wrote cards to each of my spring semester seniors when they graduated. It took hours to write out dozens of cards and I tried to personalize each one with a positive quality I saw in them while always remaining honest. (I didn’t want to write that I loved having them in class if they were actually the bane of my existence.) And most of them said nothing about the cards. My hand hurt from writing all of them and I was shy to even give them to the students. But one of my students (simultaneously a student I respected yet frustrated me greatly) stopped and thanked me for the card, saying he really appreciated what I said. And in that moment of having my affirmations received and acknowledged, it all felt worth it. The money, the time, the risk of being vulnerable, all of it was validated by a single student’s acknowledgement. Students do not realize the power their words can have on their teachers. Perhaps teachers, too, do not realize the power their words can have on their students.
So none of the students acknowledged my gift of self or the vulnerability I think I displayed. However, my hope is that one of them, secretly, felt encouraged by the thought of God having a great plan for them or that I think they have a great mind with which to pursue truth. Even if none of them take away anything from it, it was good for me to practice being vulnerable. It is good to practice finding good and admirable things in the people who fall asleep in my classes, challenge my authority, talk while I’m talking, and the list can go on and on. It is good to find Christ in each of them and to recognize that He can and is doing great things with and through them.