A Handshake from a Father

On Friday morning, in the middle of a pretty important meeting with some district admin types, a man walked into my classroom following his 17-year-old daughter. The daughter was a current student in my class; a face and a smile that I have come to know well over the last 165 days in room 375. The man behind her though, I had never met.

I stood up to introduce myself to the newcomer. Before I could say anything, the girl chimed in.

“Dad- This is Mr. Boll… My favorite teacher.”

As any good father would, the man eagerly stepped across the room to firmly shake my hand. For a moment, I thought we were going to share one of those kind of awkward “I just met you, but you seem great” hugs. He stopped short, held on to my hand and stared into my eyes.

“Thank you so much for what you do.”

Despite what some people will try to tell you, that’s actually a sentiment that teachers are fortunate enough to hear fairly often. I get kind of obligatory “thank yous” regularly when people find out that I teach and where I teach. Usually, this kind of platitude feels more like a “thank God I’m not you” than an actual offer of gratitude, so I usually offer a fake laugh and say something like “ahh, I have a great gig.”

Then, people either go into some questions about whether or not I actually have a “great gig” so I tell them that the kids are amazing and that the adults are actually kind of suspect. Or, if they’re so inclined, they dive into some monologue about the decline of work-ethic and maybe morality among today’s youth before I tell them that the facts say that kids today are actually working harder and being nicer than we were 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. Then I tell them to save their ridiculousness for the comments section under the next article about education in the city newspaper. That’s where all the haters live.

Or, I just say that my wine is empty and I have to go get another glass if I am going to be able to keep having this conversation.

As you may have inferred, the firm handshake and the “thank you” from a father felt much more meaningful than a half-assed nod of appreciation at a neighborhood barbecue.

I returned the dad’s affirming stare with the awareness that the people I was meeting with were waiting and watching.

“No, sir. Thank you.”

He smiled and nodded, but I felt the need to continue like a teacher who talks too much. Being misunderstood might be one of my biggest fears, which probably says something about the amount of privilege society offers 30-something white guy teachers. We often have the privilege of another sentence to explain ourselves. I often try not to take that, and usually fail.

“Seriously, It is a real honor that you have trusted me for an hour each day with the care, and education, of the most important person in your world. It’s a huge deal, and I want you to know that I don’t take that lightly.”

Most of us in classrooms or schools will close the last page of this book that is our school year in the coming weeks, and I can’t help but feel humbled by the fact that so many parents have allowed us to do this job. If that reality doesn’t scare you and humble you, I would suggest you are not recognizing the weight of it all.

It was that weight, a few years ago, that provided the impetus for this cheesy, and usually bad education blog when I wrote an email to Adam:

“I'm sitting here, my stomach twisted with equal parts love, fear, and red wine, hoping that I can remember to be excited. Society has made a great handshake with us, trusting that we will lead, guide, and teach with the care that our young people deserve.”

It’s the kind of thinking that makes me feel entirely unqualified, ill-prepared, and brings me to the intense reality that I need to work every day to be better at what I do. But it also extends the greatest “thank you” that any teacher could ever need. We don’t need the public to offer us half-hearted thanks in grocery store lines and on funny Facebook memes. We probably don't even need, but will accept, the free burrito for teacher appreciate week once a year. We have all we need in the trust that parents give us. We have the students who walk into our rooms every day as a sign of the greatest respect a culture could offer: we get to teach.

I’m writing this because I don’t want to forget that in the last few weeks of the school year. I don’t want to forget the look in that father’s eyes as he held my hand for kind of an awkward amount of time. That’s the handshake that we make every day.

And next year, when I send my 5-year old to the neighborhood kindergarten, I’m trusting that the teacher in her room feels that weight too. I don’t want us all to crumble under the pressure to be better than any person can be, but I want us to be kind and caring and put in the work that all of our young people deserve. I want us all to continue working like these children are our own.

Because, in a very real and communal sense, they are.