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Teachers always hope that they have positive lasting impacts on their students, but, of course, they don’t often find out, especially with their most difficult charges. This is a lovely essay by a veteran educator about one of the students she had in her first year of teaching. He was, she writes, “sulky, defiant, and withdrawn,” and she was sure he hated her. Here’s how she found out the impact she really had on him.

This was written by Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and she teaches high school English and creative writing. Lamb-Sinclair, who authors the www.beautifuljunkyard.com website, took a sabbatical during the 2015-16 school year and worked with the Kentucky Department of Education.  She is also the founder and chief executive officer of Curio Learning, an educational technology company launching a platform for teacher professional development. Lamb-Sinclar has written several posts for this blog.

By Ashley Lamb-Sinclair

I see Connor in the back room of the downtown coffee shop where I’ve asked him to meet. He is reading patiently, a bottle of water beside his book, as I burst in a few minutes late and offer to buy him a coffee. He declines and puts his book away, waiting again for me to get my own drink and return. I sit across from him and am surprised when I ask him how he’s been and he tells me that he is married. It is surreal to believe this sandy-haired, tattooed, eternal rebel former student is now a married physics major, but there you have it.

I asked Connor to meet me because, like most teachers I know, there are always a few students who stick with you. Connor is one of mine, for better or worse, and I wanted to get his side of the story. As a teacher, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about my craft– thinking about lessons that landed and failed, or the millions of little interactions I have with students and how those interactions might shape who that student will grow up to be. I wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth.

But my plan is immediately set off track when I remind Connor that he was a student in my class when I was a new teacher in his suburban, middle and upper class, mostly conservative school district and that it was an election year.

“It was? I had no idea,” he tells me. This is shocking to me because it is central to the origin story I have for our relationship. Turns out, he remembers very little that has become legend in my mind of our impact on each other. I sit up a little straighter in my seat and listen as he unveils the mysterious inner workings of the teacher-student relationship, because my identity as a teacher is often woven into the idea that I can change minds and lives. I want to know if this is true and how to repeat it intentionally.

In 2012, I left a predominantly black school to teach in a predominantly conservative white one. In 2008, when President Obama was inaugurated as the first black president, I watched the young black faces in my room stare wide and teary-eyed at the historic event on the screen. We celebrated all day. We spoke about the feeling of empowerment many of my students felt and as they left the building that day, students were chanting, “O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!” as they loaded onto buses. Many teachers proudly plastered official White House images of Obama on classroom walls, and I brought mine with me when I left that school, which was on the verge of closing, and I blindly entered white suburbia.

Connor sat in the front row right beside my desk. I was pregnant and due in September, only a few weeks after the start of the school year. I remember leaning against my desk chatting with him before my maternity leave, bonding because he told me that my baby would be a Virgo just like him; we talked extensively about astrology. Other days, he talked to me about playing guitar, something he was passionate about. We had a good relationship. But I went on leave and returned to a much different Connor. He was sulky, defiant, and withdrawn. His grade had slipped to a failing one. I didn’t know what to make of it and tried to talk to him privately on a couple of occasions, thinking our prior bond could sustain whatever phase he seemed to be passing through. But he scoffed at my attempts. I grew frustrated with him and he appeared very frustrated with me.

Soon after my return, at the low point of our relationship, I organized a Socratic circle to discuss relevant social issues as the students prepared to debate topics in class. When the topic of gay marriage came up in the discussion, apparently a hot button issue for many of my students and their families at the time, Connor exploded.

He jumped up out of his seat, knocking it over, pointed his finger at me, and screamed something along the lines of, Liberals like you are ruining our country! He stormed out of the room, and after a phone call to the office and attempting to calm the rest of my students back down, the discussion came to an immediate close, and I was lost for words. Later that day, when complaining to a colleague about the ordeal, she nodded to the photo of Obama on my wall and said, “I would take that down if I were you.” Apparently what was empowering for my black students was infuriating to my white ones.

But now, sitting here in this coffee shop with Connor, he laughs about it in a reflective way, a way that indicates maturity and growth. He tells me: “I only cared about myself then. I didn’t think about other people…I didn’t have any regard for other people’s experience. But I came to realize that I love people, so they must love people, and that’s it. I became vulnerable, so I realized their vulnerability too.”

He also tells me other things that he just couldn’t tell me as a 15 year old. He tells me that during his freshmen year he watched several people he loved die, and he was so angry by the time he reached sophomore year when he landed in my class. When I remind him about our Virgo conversations and our initial bond, he says matter-of-factly, “I probably felt like you abandoned me. I was just looking for reasons to be angry.”

I hear this and my heart aches. I see his bright face so clearly in those first weeks of our introduction, and I just wish he could have told me, or that I had been able somehow to pull some version of this knowledge from him then.

But our year continued in this way — fighting, back and forth, push and pull.

In a unit when we studied and wrote about the concept of happiness, I brought in a guest speaker who had studied the effects of meditation on happiness. She led the classes through some meditative exercises and within a couple of days, phone calls from parents began. I was spreading my “liberal agenda” and it had to stop.

The Dalai Lama visited Louisville that spring and when I took a group of students to hear him speak, calls came in again that it was inappropriate to “force my religion” on students. To me, Connor was the ring leader through all of this. He had such a natural charisma and leadership ability, and I saw his influence on other students. I imagined some orchestrated plan to take me down, but I neglected to see that his anger was in response to trauma and pain. I might have approached him differently had I considered it.

Yet, even though my relationship with Connor suffered that year, I also never regretted the way I challenged his and his classmates’ thinking. No matter how many calls to the school I received, I didn’t relent in my attempts to offer and validate multiple perspectives in my lessons. I didn’t shy away from hot topics, even as I knew they would be met with resistance. And I never took down my Obama photo.

I was shocked two years later to discover that Connor had signed up for my creative writing class. I thought he hated me. In my mind, he was doing it intentionally to seek revenge during his last year of high school. But I soon found my assumptions to be wildly incorrect. We got along really well that year, I think maybe because he had seemed to find some relief from his anger in the way of creative expression — he wrote poetry, acted in plays, and still played his guitar. I was even pleasantly surprised to see Connor engage in close friendships with openly gay students. He seemed a far cry from the kid pointing his finger at me in sophomore English.

I ask Connor now how this change happened. My ego wants to hear that he changed because of me, but that is not the answer I get. Apparently our appreciation for astrology and the arts is not the only thing we have in common because he says, “When people like me have large, shatterable egos, in order to change, it has to become personal.”

He says he read a lot of books and began to empathize with others through internalizing the stories, and he adds that “writing became a pathway for self-reflection.” But most of all, his relationships with peers and with adults pushed him to reconsider his anger and his perspective. This need for honest, authentic relationships was part of the reason he rebelled against authority. He says, “I felt like an equal, but I was not necessarily treated as an equal in school. I could recognize this equality with adults, but it felt like the adults didn’t see it. Kids are people too. The best teacher I had was the one who was honest and real. He was vulnerable with us. He didn’t try to tame us. I would intentionally exploit the techniques teachers were using to tame kids. I could always tell what they were trying to do.”

I think about my interactions with students that year, and I definitely avoided vulnerability because it is hard to expose vulnerability when one feels under attack. I was defensive. It felt like me against them.

Connor’s sandy hair falls in his eyes and he keeps pushing it back, using his hands as he talks. And he reveals his own vulnerability when he tells me how school made him feel dumb, even though he was so good at other things outside of school, and how he just wished that someone would have told him that he was good at something.

“You just don’t know what people are capable of,” he adds before he goes on to tell me that he has a 4.0 GPA as a physics major and how inspired he is now by his physics professors. He tells me that their passion for physics makes him passionate about it too. I ask him what he wants to do “when he grows up” as it were, and he says with a smile, “I just want to keep learning and then die.”

He gives me a book as we get up to leave — “Still Life with Woodpecker” by Tom Robbins — and tells me he thought I would like it. I accept it and feel badly that I have nothing to give him. Connor shrugs it off when I say this, and says, “No worries.”

I get home and think about our conversation and all of my memories of this student, and I wonder what impact a teacher can really have on changing the minds and behavior of students who seem entrenched in negative thoughts about themselves, others, and the world, when so much of what creates a person’s perspective is a combination of informal education and personal growth. With the current political climate, I find myself feeling daunted by the task of changing mindset. I pull out my phone to send Connor a Facebook message, thanking him for meeting me and agreeing to talk so openly, and I realize that this exchange is not the first we’ve had since Connor graduated. I find a message that he sent me soon after graduation a couple of years ago and in it he wrote:

“Because of just who we are as humans, I felt it was common that we clashed; however, I want you to know that as I grew older I always respected you, how you teach, your passion and compassion. I wish I didn’t have so much unearned pride; I wish I would have told you this when you were still my teacher.”

I guess I had more of an impact than I thought, and it feels really good to know, however small it might have been. Teacher-student relationships are complicated and organic, but I realize now how important it is to push each other, grow from the challenges, and remember that every teacher plays a role in a student’s personal growth somehow. Connor tells me, “You just don’t know what people are capable of,” and I think how important it is to remember that lesson as I prepare to teach another group of 15-year-olds the next day.