When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was heavy into a deep love affair with the blues. Like so many that age who love something deeply, I found it impossibly absurd that others not only didn’t share my love but were incapable of being persuaded. I mean, Buddy Guy, listen to that guitar. Have you ever heard anything like it? How can you not love the way Robert Cray sings? And Muddy Waters. Muddy Waters! Come on, how do you not hear it?
Today, I bid farewell to my first class of AP seniors. I believe this class was the best I’ve ever been as a teacher. It was perfectly suited to my talents. But, like all classes, it felt like a failure.
I think what makes me a good teacher can be traced back to that feeling I had about the blues in college. I loved it so much and I believed with fervor that others should love it, too.
I feel the same way about great literature. The difference is that, in college, I was twenty and trying to convince others who were twenty that I was right and they were wrong. Now, I am thirty-two, trying to convince a bunch of eighteen-year-olds that I am right. It’s a tall task. They don’t want to listen to me. But I do have enough authority to make them at least pretend to take my opinion seriously.
I know, I absolutely know, that I did not convince many of the students in that class that reading was valuable for anything other than getting a good grade in English. A few days before the end of class, one student flat out told me she did not like reading and would never read unless she absolutely had to.
I failed that student. And, I’ll confess, I don’t know how not to fail students like that from time to time. I can give them reason. I can give them passion. I can even give them a grade. I can’t force their minds open. I can’t make them believe like I want them to believe. That is more than I can do.
However, I can keep caring. And I can notice the difference when I have them reread a book and they come to me excited about all the new stuff they noticed. I can feel good when some of them tell me, earnestly, that a book I assigned is the best book they have ever read – that it is their favorite book. Some of those kids were already readers and some of them weren’t, but they all listened.
I don’t know what makes some kids listen and some just care about the grade. I don’t know why so many don’t know that there’s a difference between an A that comes from trying and caring and an A that comes from wanting an A.
I do know that it matters when I stand up in front of them and tell them that the book we are about to read is great. It matters that I believe the books we read can change lives. I didn’t get all of them this year. I won’t get all of them next year. I’ll keep failing, but right now, that seems okay.