Putting things into perspective

Today, I hosted an “end of semester” celebration for ten students and their peer mentor at my house. I cooked and baked and put on Christmas music but honestly, wasn’t looking forward to it this morning. Yesterday was a rough day, I didn’t sleep well last night, and I’m generally just not feeling well, but I went ahead with the party at my house anyway.
The first hour was a bit awkward; only a few students had arrived, I was still catching up, trying to get everything prepared, cleaning the house at the last minute…anyway…but then the students arrived, all ten of them, and their mentor, and they started snacking on appetizers, baking their own creations in my kitchen, and chatting, like all 18 year old fantastic kids do. I stayed in the kitchen while several of the students chatted and played cards at the dining room table nearby, and conversation got around to how they all grew up, where they are from, what their lives were like back home.

“My mama,” one of the young men said, “if my teacher had to call her, she would tell me, ‘we’ll talk about THIS when I get home.’ And I knew, it would be bad. I’d clean the house the best I could, and I’d make dinner for her so when she came home from work, she could eat, and then, I’d pretend that I was asleep when she came home, so maybe she wouldn’t beat me bad if I was sleeping. Maybe she’d let me sleep and she’d forget about it the next morning. But she never did. She always woke me up and would bend me over, and that would be it.”

I listened quietly to the conversation, which meandered to growing up in poverty, growing up feeling targeted because of their race, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, growing up as the first generation to go to college. I rarely get to hear this in the classroom, in such a natural conversation.

As dinner time neared, one of the students asked me, “Marianne, do you want to hear the poem I just finished?” he was so excited, so I stopped slicing the ham, cleaned my hands, and turned toward him so I could give him my full attention. The others mingled for a minute, then, as the young man began to speak his poem, they all stopped, turned toward him, and became very quiet. “Wake up! Wake up!” his voice echoed through my kitchen, became louder and more fevered as his words sped up with intensity. He spoke for 5 minutes, and ended his poem, “wake up, and do something and be better women and men.” He was brilliant, and I wished I would have videotaped his performance. He’s not a kid I probably would have ever gotten to know if he had just been in my class, and as I served dinner to the students today, I wondered how many other brilliant minds I’ve missed over the years, lost in the seats of my classroom, who I never considered inviting into my home for a meal. And I know, I can’t know them all, but this, for me, is what teaching is all about. I should be looking for the brilliance, and not be surprised when it appears, especially when it’s in my own kitchen.