In Fall 2014, something happened that changed me: as a teacher, as a parent, as a person. That fall, I had numerous Middle College (high school) students in my trigonometry classes. They were delightful and I enjoyed them immensely. But the experience absolutely blew my mind.
As a graduate student, I got my first teaching assignment at age 23. That was at San Francisco State University, where the average student was in their 20’s and where many of my students had put off their math requirement until the end of their education. So most of my students were about my age and many were older. So I always saw them as young adults. At age 26, I started teaching at Foothill College. I noticed that the students were a bit younger, but I really thought nothing of it.
Fast forward 18 years. My daughter is almost 15. My son is 11. I have numerous “other children,” kids who I’ve known and cared for over the years. I’ve known a few of them since birth, many since preschool or kindergarten. They are the children who grew up with my kids. I love them. I love their families. And I realize that my daughter and her peers, freshmen in high school, are just 2 years younger than these Middle College students in my class. Like shifting tectonic plates, my mind is completely blown.
At that moment, I realize that my students are very, very young. This is a shift, not in circumstance, but in perspective. I never saw my students as young or inexperienced. I saw them only as adults, as students. But at that moment, I see them through the lens of my experiences of the last 15 years. I see them as I see my children and all of my children’s friends. And I realize that they are not that far removed from childhood. And all the hope and care and concern I have for the children in my life is extended to my students–instantaneously, at the moment of realization.
And in that moment, something starts nagging at the edges of my mind. I can’t see it, but I feel it. It takes longer, perhaps days or weeks to come into focus. And then, for a moment, I see it. My 15 year old is not that far removed from adulthood. And for a moment, all of the worries and fears that try to creep into a mother’s heart are exiled and I experience a profound sense of peace. And that place is in my heart now, and I know how to find it when I need to.
And I feel a confidence about my students that I never felt before. I see them as works in progress, as young people trying to figure out who they want to be and how they want to be. I see their families, in my mind’s eye, hopeful, anxious, proud, forgiving, loving. And although I know that these young people are adults, I no longer expect that they will have everything figured out. And when they make mistakes or when they seem a little lost, I figure the best I can do for them is show them a little kindness, like the many people who have shown me kindness, especially in my youth.