Sunday, September 19, 2010

Paying It Forward

When I'm not fishing, tying, blogging, or responding to the triplets' incessant cries of "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy" ... I am a teacher of composition, rhetoric, and literature (also known as 12th grade English). And while it may seem a stretch, teaching can be a tough job. Yes ... I am painfully aware of all the arguments that might suggest otherwise.

Teachers have an extended summer vacation. Teachers have all those days off around the holidays. Many teachers don't teach; they spend the work day reading the newspaper. Teachers take Caribbean vacations courtesy of the tax-payer. Ten months in a classroom hardly equates to ten months on a crab boat in the Bering Sea.

I'm not going to try to dispel those myths here, and they are myths - except for the crab boat thing. Instead, I ask only that you suspend your disbelief, and try to understand that working with kids is sometimes very difficult. Not only does the job try one's patience, but it also erodes one's resilience. The ubiquitous chatter, wise cracks, and spit balls aren't what makes for a difficult day. The real challenge is the heartbreak. Over and over again, I hear the stories.

Mary's father is a drunk. Steven's mother has been out of work for over a year, and Steven works nights at the local grocery to pay his family's rent. Emma's uncle has been arrested for raping Emma's sister, and he was probably raping Emma too. These nightmares - and myriad others just as terrible - are incredibly sad, and all too common.

Even more common is the story of the talented young person who is too apathetic, lazy, or short-sighted to care much about his or her education. It is this apathy - a complete and all consuming lack of ambition with which I am too often confronted - that most affects me. I don't expect my students to be passionate about the content of my class; I'd be a fool if I did. I only hope the young people in my charge are passionate about something. With ever increasing frequency, they are not.

That's why I did something the other day that I have not done in the ten years since I first took ownership of my classroom. I took a student - a former student actually - fly fishing. When he was under my tutelage, William would often speak of fishing with his grandfather, and when he did he invariably smiled. I don't recall him ever smiling outside of those conversations about his grandfather.

As you might expect, Will knew I was a bug chucker, and often asked if he might someday join me on the river. I'm ashamed to say that fears of liability and litigation kept me from ever making that trip. His disappointment at having been repeatedly denied was obvious that last day of class. I've thought about Will quite a bit since then, and when I was given a chance to redeem myself I jumped at the opportunity.

To make a long story just a little bit shorter, Will and I finally managed to share some water. We ran into each other near the end of the summer. I made sure to give him my number, and an open invitation for a day on the river. He called that same night.

The following morning, we strung up a pair of long rods, and flailed away at one of my favorite sections of smallmouth water. Will cast surprisingly well. His grandfather must have been quite a teacher. After a dozen or so bass we were sated. We parted ways with a firm handshake, and an awkward bro-hug.

Later in the week, I received a series of text messages from Will (seems like everyone his age would rather text than talk). He thanked me for taking him, expressed his happiness at having caught a few fish, and intimated that he might want to go again. He also shared a rather remarkable story.

Following our trip, he returned home, and flipped through his mother's photo albums. He explains that he felt nostalgic, and was looking for pictures of his grandpa. He found several, including a picture that was taken when Will was just a boy. The photograph might have depicted the first time Will fished with his grandfather as he didn't remember the day or the context in which the photo was taken.

What struck him most about the photo is that he and I had fished in exactly the same spot that he and his grandfather had fished some 15 years prior.

So ... what's the point?

I guess the point is this. Kids are surprising. They seem not to care. They seem apathetic, disaffected, and lazy. They're not. It's all a show. Kids are razor sharp, deeply emotional - virtual well springs of passion and fury. They need to know that someone cares enough to see the best in them, even when they bury that character under layers of ignorance and bravado. They want someone - anyone really - to care enough to share with them a few laughs and a day on the water.

That leaves me with only one more thing to say.

Thank you Will.

Thank you for taking time away from your friends to spend a day with me. Thank you helping me to take off my blinders. Thank you for refreshing - if not restoring - my waning faith in young people, and helping me to realize that people like you are almost always more than they seem to be. You're a good man, and I think I'm a better man for having known you. 

I can only hope that someday I'm given the opportunity to pay it all forward.


wrh said...

Great story. Working in schools is something that one doesn't understand until one does it. Your story touches the special place that all too often the kids keep hidden. But if they know you care they will invite you in. As far as fishing the same spot as his grandfather I like to think that there is much of this world that we don't understand.

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean about teaching since I teach English in primary school in Poland. It is difficult, but really satisfying. Tight lines !