How not to cry

My six grade teacher was a lunatic who used to cry in the parking lot after I challenged her on the definition of a word (I had an impressive vocabulary) or after someone said something unflattering about her hair or shoes. I felt betrayed and disgust when she did this. She was a teacher. How could an eleven year old kid make her cry? Then I had this poor, untalented teacher of Algebra in 8th grade who did his best to teach me something, anything in math. We used to call him over and then we'd pretend he'd said something inappropriate to us and we'd say, "Oh, Mr. Mitchell, that's awful!" and he would blush and stammer and turn bright red.  A year later I was with my mother and the guy filling our car up with gas was my former math teacher. I remember feeling implicated and a bit horrified but I also thought he was a loser.

I was thinking about these two former educators the other day as I broke down in front of the last class of the day, a day that started at 7:30 with a barrage of e-mails requesting things I didn't have, asking for seating charts when I teach ten different sections in ten different classrooms, classrooms I walk in and out of carrying my laptop, aware that I have never been so disorganized and ill prepared for teaching. There were threatening e-mails telling us about required paperwork and more threatening e-mails about things that required attachments that wouldn't open, classrooms without internet for classes that are all planned using the web and it was just too much. I watched my fellow teachers run around in circles, educated, wonderful women who deserve respect reacting to an arbitrary and stupid demand for paperwork that was soon to be amended, contradicted, cancelled or declared no longer necessary and I made the terrible mistake of feeling and tears were the result. Not tears of sadness but rage. I was frustrated, confused and very angry. After a brief moment with colleagues I went to my class and when I saw the eager, kind faces of my students, I lost it again.

Crying in front of a class feels like being naked in front of the general population, not good. But these girls who are seniors and have tolerated so many years on incompetence and random alterations in their education reacted like angels. They were concerned, kind and comforting. They set up the projector and murmured reassurance to their tired, overwrought, incompetent English teacher. They told me I needed to take better care of myself and that they understood and that all their teachers cried. They did their work, one of them wrote my objective on the board and I suddenly recalled that while I highly recommend you not cry in front of students, sometimes it's okay.

Back in America, I once had a dreadful class. It was the final period of an incredibly long day, seniors again but a very different group, African-American mainly, almost all male, criminal in terms of warrants out for arrests and wildly varied on ability. This class would periodically explode into arguments that had noting to do with "King Lear" (why was I teaching them Lear???) and everything to do with the fact that there were rival members of several gangs in the classroom. I asked a male colleague to sit in one day and help me improve my teaching and he told me later he had never been so terrified around students. "Someone hated you to give you that class," he said. No doubt. Anyway, one day I found myself standing between two boys with the remainder of the class grouped behind them according to which boy they supported. I lost it. I started to cry and the boys melted. I should have called security but instead I sat down at a desk and wept telling them I couldn't take it anymore, they needed a different teacher, I had no idea how to help them and I was tired. "Don't cry," one kid said. "You're the best teacher we ever had." He paused. "This Lear book doesn't make any sense but you're a good person."

They returned to their desks, picked up Lear, asked a few questions, brought me Kleenex and generally behaved like the sweetest people in the world. A week later they were back to attacking each other and this time I did call security. Still, sometimes it's okay to show you are human, overwhelmed and unable to find your game face. Sometimes.


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