If I could subtract one thing from my career, I’d choose fear. I was a scared teacher way too often. Especially when it came to firsts—the first class of eighth graders and of highly gifted students and of minimum-security inmates and medium-security inmates and even death-row inmates. The first college class I taught and the first parent-education group. The first time we had a murder in our hometown and the sons of the murdered and of the murderer were both in my homeroom.
How, I often wondered, did I keep finding myself in these daunting places when my threshold for fear is low? I don’t ride roller coasters or see scary movies or even eat spicy foods. And I can’t understand why people seek these thrills.
A pounding heart, sweating palms, and shaking knees—I do what I can to avoid all these.
Except, apparently, when it comes to teaching.
Perhaps I kept going back for more because I came to see that, though I usually started out with dread and shrinking, I didn’t have to stay there. I learned by necessity that I could move my focus off my anxious self and settle it solidly and gently on my students.
I’d move in close, passing by their desks, looking into their faces as though I knew I’d find something interesting there. And when you look, I discovered, you find. Even when faces are shuttered.
Those shuttered faces! They threw me at first, But I learned to keep looking, keep expecting. This drove out my fear. And it opened students to me and to learning.
In each new place—the middle school, the prison, the gifted program, the college—this started as an effective strategy, something that worked. But soon came the magic. What had been a form, turned to feeling—something warm that flowed from me to them and often also from them to me.
And this feeling, love or whatever it was, worked better than fear.