"Mr. Boll-Are you Happy with Yourself?"

It has been one of those weeks that the mountain ahead of us and boulder we are pushing feels just a bit bigger and heavier than we are able to handle. Progress eludes us while the challenges of this task seem to persist without any intermission. I know there are a lot of hands pushing the boulder up the mountain, and I’m thankful for that, but I fear that it might roll back on us soon. Or, my hand will slip off the rock and I’ll fall in the mud. Maybe I’ll just get tired and give up. On weeks like this, I spend a lot of time wishing that I was a little stronger and could push a little harder. I’m embarrassed to admit that I start to look around at the people who aren’t pushing enough and judge them for letting their hands off the rock. I’m sure others think the same things about me.

 Then, in the midst of my pity party and anxious despair, Thursday happened. It wasn’t the whole day, just a short 42 minute period in the morning that was exactly what I needed to cut through my cynicism about this whole broken system that we have made. On my own, I was ready to give up on this public education mess as we have come to know it. It seems that the best moments in this job usually happen by some sort of convenient mistake.

The students on Thursday morning filed in slowly and started to answer a prompt on a paper I had handed them. It was about Gatsby and one’s ability to relive or recreate the past. One student was abnormally moving around the room, not quite settling into whatever boring lesson I was awkwardly trying to execute.

Finally out of nowhere, she asked me if I was all just some charade. She pressed on about whether this whole “english teacher persona” was actually some elaborate disguise for my job, as if I had drawn character inspiration from some movie or comic book.

I smiled, secretly wishing that I was creative or smart enough to handle secret lives and multiple personalities. Then I imagined that if I did have that ability, and all that I could come up with was this kind of nerdy english teacher as my persona, that would be equally depressing.  

“No,” I relented sadly. “Unfortunately, this is pretty much me. This right here- weird energetic teacher who wears jeans too often and can’t dance- is pretty much all I got.”

“Are you happy with that,” she responded in a way that seemed honest and sincere. I tried to match her heartfelt question while still juggling that robotic mode I get into at the beginning of every class.

“I think, sometimes. But that is a much larger conversation.”
“Ok- Can I ask the whole class then?”

Before I could answer, we were off in a direction that we couldn’t have planned. In fact, I introduced the student playfully as if she were our guest lecturer, and found a seat with the other students to the side of the room.

She first told some kids to shut up and put their phones away, and then she asked them all to write on the back of their paper an answer to her soul-burning question.

“Are you guys happy with yourselves?”  

I reached in my pocket, grabbed one of my ever-present supply of 20 pens, and inked up, watching with anticipation to see how this whole thing would end.

I kept waiting. It really didn’t end. Forty minutes later, with tears in most of our eyes and hearts that were laid carefully in the middle of the room like stones on an alter, the bell sounded during one of the student’s responses. Nobody even inched toward the door. Instead, we all sat with our tears, wondering what had just happened. It certainly wasn’t an English lesson, but it was a better use of all of our time than anything that I could have dreamed up. Kids always sprint toward the door after my classes, as if I was holding them in some medieval torture room. Thursday was different. We all recognized that something special was happening and we were best served to let that ride for a bit.  

That “special” that transpired in that short time isn’t the stuff for low-rent blog posts, at least the specifics. It was student after student talking about what has shaped their identity. In order to be happy with yourself, you have to know yourself, and each student seemed to have a unique understanding of that reality. They grappled with all the things that they hadn’t figured out yet, and in that particular class of high school seniors, there was a lot of hardships that didn’t make sense in their experiences. Students nodded and “hmmm-ed” at moments providing these intense feelings of solidarity and quenched one of those deep human needs. Listening and understanding seemed to prevail in a high school classroom that is usually full of opinions and ideas. Students who hadn’t been friends before were engaging in healing conversations that get well beyond most adult friendships. They were talking about how their own brain deals with the realities of life, and how loving those things about themselves is harder than they could have imagined. And how loving those intricacies in others seemed impossible some days. There was a lot of tears streaming down our faces. There had to be.

And I just listened. Sure, there were a few times where the teacher got the best of me and I wanted to throw my two cents worth of opinion and solution into the stories, but my “2 cents” held very little value in the kind of truth that they were sharing. It was one of those moments where I got the clear sense that being there made me a better person. I was the fortunate one getting to witness something amazing. Miraculous, even.

For this week, it was exactly what I needed. Yes, the rock we are pushing up the mountain is heavy. Part of that heaviness is all of the adult decisions that we have made to make sure that this system doesn’t work for some people. But there is another very real part of that heaviness that has to do with human experience, the stuff that fills in our lives and builds us into the people we are. Schools are filled with people who have very real, and sometimes very painful experiences. Love of self is critical to growth, but it’s not the kind of thing that we normally talk about in class. In some ways we are not prepared. None of us went to grad school to learn to facilitate group therapy sessions that are led by 18-year-olds.

So the stone is really heavy and the mountain of education reform is a big one. When I talk to adults it is tempting to believe that we can’t keep pushing. It’s too heavy, and I am ready to give up.

But for right now, I know we’re not going to get crushed. The kids won’t let that happen.