I Get my Gold Watch

I don’t have much contact with former students and don’t much want it. Most of my students were OK, some of them were fun, some were astonishingly great, some of them were unspeakable monsters. But teaching is a kind of transactional relationship. It’s a calling for many people. For me it was a calling, but in reality it’s a bunch of people (remember I taught college and university writing and business communication) who pay some money to learn some stuff they hope will help them earn a living when they’re finished. They pay. The teacher is paid in turn to teach them something useful to their future lives.

What that might be, however? That’s a big question especially when you aren’t teaching hard skills but soft ones.

You sign up for “a world of pain” when you sign up for this. Last night, for some reason, I thought of all the really horrific experiences I had as a teacher that included being pushed up against a wall with a student’s hand on my throat. I wondered why I was remembering this of all things in a world that’s scary enough as it is. Then I realized that it’s because a student emailed me a couple of days ago.

She is from Iraq. Her family refugeed to the US during the GWB war. She was young, 19. She was in my critical thinking class at a community college. She was aggressive and arrogant (defenses?). One day, as we were starting Fahrenheit 451 she said, “Why do we have to read this? It’s boring.”

Her whole strategy for going to school and approaching life, her whole feeling toward existence, all of that was encapsulated in that question. She was going to endure life by rejecting it out of hand. That would teach it.

I looked at her, kept my composure, and said, “Because it changed the world. You need to know what it says or you’re going to live in a future just like that. How far are you?”

“Two pages.”

I laughed. “Keep reading. Every book is boring two pages in.”

She kept reading and her attitude changed. Her attitude toward EVERYTHING changed. She never stopped challenging things, but she didn’t challenge me in that way again. She needed someone to stand up to her. She loved all three novels we read and saw herself as Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth, driving her car out of The Doldrums to conduct the orchestra of Chroma the Great.

We’ve corresponded off and on since I moved here. She finished her degree and has done a lot of traveling. I think for her, now, life is a journey. She wrote about her most recent trip which was to Iran;

“What I enjoyed the most, was the fact that I was walking on land where the Persian Empire started. Every step I took was a step in history every building I entered some famous scholar once sat their to conduct their studies. That to me was so powerful. It is as if you are walking in the past but right now. I don’t know how to really explain it. If you have ever stepped in a historical place you might know what I mean.”

And that, folks, is why I put up with everything for so long.

And, as I post this, this song plays on Mohammed’s Radio:


27 thoughts on “I Get my Gold Watch

  1. We watched a movie on Netflix the other night–Wild Oats. Shirley MacLaine plays a retired school teacher…..she was everyone’s ‘favorite teacher.’ Light comedy, pretty fun movie.

  2. A good teacher can have a HUGE influence on a student with a single comment. You definitely did that — and it sounds as if she is having a much better life as a result!

        • Maybe but a lot of it is a confluence of factors no teacher controls. The only thing my experience affected here was recognizing what was happening over on that side of the room. Either she’d take the challenge or continue being an asshole out of anger and fear. It’s not easy being a hijab wearing Muslim girl in a classroom filled with Chaldean Christians and rednecks. I saw courage in that and I bet on her taking the challenge.

  3. Teachers have so much influence and, in this case especially, it was life changing for your student. Attitude can be everything. How nice she is still in touch. Yesterday was “National Teacher Appreciation Day” – recognition which should not be for just ONE day. You deserve that gold watch 🙂
    So weird that particular song came on. Brings back memories.

  4. I wonder how much her own cultural upbringing – her desire to resist its dictates, to pursue her own goals – coupled with being a refugee in a place (the US) that would not be welcoming, played into her challenging attitude at the start of the class? Rebellion plays out in so many ways, often misdirected. So wise and compassionate of you to gently redirect her, and how wonderful that she recognized your effort and shows her appreciation by continuing to communicate with you over the years.
    It’s those small yet meaningful rewards, having nothing to do with remuneration but instead knowing you’ve made a real difference in someone’s life, that make one’s occupation worthwhile. A fine gold watch, indeed!

    • Good points — I don’t think she had any desire to resist the dictates of her culture. I think she resented being uprooted and was angry at the destruction of her country. I don’t know, but this has come through in our exchanges over the years. I hope when she’s older and has had time to see more and think about it that she will write about it. Her dad was a government official who had very high hopes for his daughter. I think sometimes she’s the reason I didn’t retire sooner. ❤

  5. I don’t know how this one slipped past me! You made me chortle with your description of the different students. the fact that she is still in contact with you is testament to the difference you made in her life!! I have several “students” who now have PhDs that have contacted me over the years and it is a most gratifying thing. Glad you got that “lift” during this low period in the COVID-19 drama.

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