Yesterday, a typical October school day, hit our southern end of California with a blast of Santa Anas. I don’t know if it was the warm winds or the slow march toward Thanksgiving break, but students were acting twitchy.
One student, in particular, exhibited the symptoms we teachers dread: calling out, touching others. The list goes on. I walked over to his desk. I leaned down. Quietly, I asked him to walk outside with me. We stood in a puddle of sunlight. The hills behind him were brown but in the afternoon sun blazed golden. I looked into his eyes.
He said, “I know what you’re going to say. Teachers always hate me.”
I smiled at him and said, “Who could hate you? Who wouldn’t love you?”
His shoulders moved down from his ears. His eyes grew large and shiny. A tear fell. I put my hand on his arm. He shook as he said, “I’m sorry.”
“Hey, it’s okay. You’re human,” I said. “We’re going to have a great year together.“
“Yeah,” he said, smiling as we walked back into the classroom that suddenly didn’t feel quite as sweltering as it had before.
When I was a kid, my father often quoted the humorist Will Rodgers: “I never met a man I didn’t like.” My father not only said these words, he has always tried to live them. An affable man, my dad looks for the good in people, and he usually finds it. I have observed this about my father all my life, but it took an incident in my early teaching career and another teacher, far wiser than I to bring the lesson home.
“I hate you!” said Judy, picking up her desk. She and the now-animated piece of furniture began hopping away from me. “I hate you, hate you, hate you!”
I was a popular teacher. Yes, I had rigorous standards, but I was funny, and beloved by many of my students. No student had ever behaved so outrageously. I called Judy’s mother, but her conduct did not improve appreciably. Judy was the worm in my teacher apple.
For twenty years, I taught 7th grade Honors English. My classroom was connected to another classroom where students would go for 8th grade Honors English, which was taught by my colleague and friend, Adele.
On the first day of school, Adele and I had a tradition: I would go into her classroom and bid farewell to my former students; she would say hello to my students who would be coming to her the following year. The year after I taught Judy, when I went into Adele’s classroom to say goodbye to my 7th graders, Judy picked up her desk to begin her usual hop. I saw Adele move swiftly across the room. I saw her lean down. I saw her move her head toward Judy. Judy whispered in her ear. Adele whispered back. I saw Judy smile. The desk did not move.
Later, I asked Adele about their conversation. She told me that Judy had said that I hated her. Adele asked her two questions: “Who could hate you? Who wouldn’t love you?”
These are powerful questions. It is easy to find something to dislike in someone. It is harder to find something to love. However, this is my daily challenge, my most important routine: I try to find something to love in each of my students. And, in fact, I have extended this beyond the classroom. The wisest people know this truth: find something to love in every person you meet, and you will be the richer for it.