"It's Great to be Seen"

There is nothing to see in my classroom right now. The seats are empty and pushed to the far side of the room, the posters have been taken down and the walls are mostly bare, and this space will remain this way for the next few months.

An empty classroom always feels a little awkward, as if it is standing in defiance of its very nature. Classrooms are supposed to be full and loud, constantly pushing at the boundaries of what each person expected when they walked in. I think most teachers see their classrooms, and the students who fill them, as a form of magic in the stories that live here. Those stories tell of a hope we didn’t have 10 months ago when we first entered these rooms in August. Ten months of noise and energy filled this space with all of the emotion one would expect from the 130 teenagers who passed through it every day.

But now, this room has returned to quiet. The early morning light is pushing through the blind that has been broken for 3 years now, forging a makeshift spotlight brightening a desk in the corner and the paint chipping off of the light brown walls behind it. I always sang angelically, or as angelically as I could, when the student in that desk spoke at 7:20 in the morning. Kids would laugh and ask what kind of drugs I was doing to have that much energy at such an early hour.

“Coffee, I guess.”

But more accurately, there is just a buzz that this work gives us. There is a feeling that I genuinely like the people who filled this room for the last 180 days, and seeing them each morning brings me to life more than the shitty Folgers from the teachers’ lounge. They enable my energy to make corny jokes, teach average lessons, and try to sing like an angel when I see the kid who is sitting in the beam of light.

Today, the emptiness of this room feels uncharacteristic, but there has been plenty to see here over last 10 months. This year, I tried to do a better job at noticing all the people and the stories that shared this space. I’ve probably always been the kind of teacher that does that well, but some tragic and untimely reminders that life and mental health are fragile things has reminded me to spend more time listening to students and telling them that they are great. So I’ve gone from being the teacher who often looks like he is on the verge of tears at those emotional classroom moments, to the guy that is unapologetically sobbing and stealing tissues from a kid in the front row.

I think old guys cry more. And this was the year that I realized I was older than all of the athletes that I watch on TV, making me come to grips with the difficult reality that I will never be a professional basketball player. That prompted me to cry a little too, but not nearly as much as I cried for students this year.  

But I’m also the kind of person who tends to dwell more on my failure than on my success, leaving me sitting here today thinking about my mistakes more than I am about all the heartfelt “thank you’s” from students that are taped to my wall and pushed into my desk drawer. That tendency also probably has me taking anxiety medication for abnormally high blood pressure and self-medicating with a glass or two of red wine most nights. It may suffice to say that 180 days can wear a good heart out, and only teachers understand the kind of tired that many of us feel right now. I got more of those thank you notes this year than I ever have, and each of them find different ways to thank me for the relational aspects of my work. They talk about how I have believed in students, how my notes and pep talks have inspired, how my class was a bright spot in the day, and how my listening ear was a welcome band-aid when the realities of life pierced the skin. They talk about how I made a safe place for them to be themselves.

Those are, according to all the feedback I get, the things that Mr. Boll does well. At my best of moments, I’m proud of that. But, as I reflect right now, I also notice what those notes don’t say that I kind of wish they did.

They don’t mention that my class was the most challenging and rewarding that they have ever taken. They don’t talk about how much they learned and how much more prepared they are for college and career because they took my class. They certainly don’t mention my organization and clarity, or the way that I broke down the content for them so that they could achieve greater things. They don’t talk about my high expectations that enabled them to achieve more than they ever thought or imagined.

I wish they said those things too so that I would feel more like the teachers in the movies. If we could all just be a little more like Ron Clark or the Freedom Writers lady, then maybe this whole mess of public education in America would be fixed.

I made a clear decision this year, after a year of focusing on some instructional things, to spend more time trying to actually understand the students who were in my room. It worked, students expressed over and over again that they felt like I cared about them and who they are. However, I found myself talking a lot more about mental health, trauma, fear, hope, and happiness and a lot less about essays and literature. I’m sure there is a balance here that every great teacher needs to find, and next year I will likely swing the other way, but I think I am learning to be ok with that process. 

But this week, in the wake of the tragic news of the death of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I’m glad I took the time to intentionally notice my students this year. I have a friend who I get to see every few weeks. She has had lived a  really tough life, as she has lost multiple children to gun violence, survived being shot herself, and struggled with many of the mental realities of trauma.

Each time I see her, my eyes light up and I give her a hug. My go to line is often the same.

“It’s great to see you.”

Her response is always quick and easy, but marked with a note of exhaustion that gives me pause.

“It’s great to be seen,” she says with a thankful sigh and a smile.  

She is speaking a fundamental truth about life that many of my students have shared with me this year in our conversations and in their notes. It is tempting in the midst of work and the pressure of tests and evaluation to think this whole thing is purely academic. However, we have the constant reminder of our students telling us that “it is great to be seen.”

That’s worth listening to.