Last night I taught my last classes at the college that asked me to leave. It was heartbreaking, and also nice. Quite a few students wanted to know what I else I would be teaching, they wanted to take more classes from me. In the hallway, I ran into a student from the year before. She told me how much she loved my class, it was her favorite, and she learned a lot. After the last section of the night, some students stayed around to chat. They talked about how the class had affected them since the beginning of the semester. How they had changed. Now they always ask questions and challenge people, they think more. One man said he couldn't stop using the word 'impiety', even while bowling.
That was awesome. I couldn't help smiling. I hadn't told them I was leaving. Yet, they indirectly thanked me for doing my job. They told me they had learned something and were better for it. My work had mattered. This was their parting gift to me, they may as well have wrapped it up in a bow.
I've learned to love these students. They're tough city kids, fun and exciting. They've lived hard lives, have opinions, and have their own wisdom. But they are kids. If you show any weakness they eat you alive. They almost chewed me to oblivion during the first two years. But then I learned to teach them. I developed my professor schtick, tailored specifically for them. It took a few years. At first, I tried being myself, nice, but it didn't work, I couldn't control the classroom. They didn't respect the pretty young girl standing up front, who supposedly had authority over them. They could smell my fear too, which meant I had already lost the game. ( I was also losing my mind, that didn't help much.)
Next, I tried to be strict and mean, scare them into compliance. Those were the worst semesters of my life. I had students get into power struggles with me, and I usually lost. They didn't fear me, they hated me. Then what could I do? I relaxed and gave up on being the disciplinarian. So my vulnerable, confused, kind-hearted side that I had tried to hide began to show. The befuddled kindly professor worked better. I didn't get hostility anymore. But about a third of the students didn't respond, they ignored me. I was criticized for being boring. Me?! Then, a few years ago, somehow, accidentally, well, I was probably manic and couldn't help it, I figured out what worked.
I charmed them. I did my first date routine on the first day of class and thereafter, mixed in with some befuddled kindly professor. I smiled, made them laugh, gave them attention, listened and appeared slightly vulnerable. I did that by expressing confusion over dates and times, confessing that I didn't know how to work the copy machine with the security code. That's why I didn't have their syllabus ready. The befuddled bit wasn't acting, but the trick was to stop hiding it, let them see my confusion. Before I just got frustrated with myself and that's what showed. And I still don't know how to use the copy machine with the stupid security code.
It worked. Like magic, the charming and befuddled professor JL got the students to behave. Finally, my 18 years of dating experience was good for something. I could make them like me. I could make them want to listen and be nice to me. Some even got a little protective of me during the semester. I'd use that on the disruptive bad seeds who didn't respond to anything but peer-pressure. When they wouldn't stop talking, I'd go silent and make a face, sad, as if they had hurt my feelings. As the other students noticed, they would hush each other and look ashamed. Awesome.
This routine doesn't work as well at other colleges, with different students. I have to create a new character and it's very frustrating. Suburban kids are not as much fun and it's not as rewarding to watch them learn to understand. But there are many other schools in the city. I hope the department chair will speak well of me if anyone calls for a recommendation. There's really no telling. I haven't sent the apology letter to him yet. I've had it ready for a week. It goes out tomorrow.
We still have finals, two more weeks of writing exams and grading, two weeks of unpaid torture.
I didn't cry during class, but I shed some tears as I walked away to the train. I never realized how much this job meant to me. That's one good thing. I'm waiting for the next.