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Lori Ungemah

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First Days of Class: Make Room for the Moments

Posted: 08/20/2012 6:12 pm

Later in my teaching career, I began a small list called "Why I Teach" that highlighted some of the kairos moments in the classroom. Just like my favorite parenting essay talks of the chronos and kairos of parenting, the same concept can be easily transferred to teaching.

Folks often said to me, "Oh, you're a teacher -- that's so great! You must love it! It must be so much FUN!" and I would look at them, force a smile, and decide if this person was worth an explanation on what teaching is really like. Teaching is hard, very hard, but nobody wants to hear that. Like parenting, there are so many chronos (literal clock-time) moments within teaching: Only five more minutes of this horrible class, 10 more minutes of this observation, one more day of the Quality Review, three days until Thanksgiving break, 25 days until the end of the year, only 40 minutes left to finish the State Examination... A large part of teaching is the management of chronological time, plain and simple.

But the kairos moments -- those rare moments in which chronological time stands still and beauty unfolds in the classroom -- THAT'S what keeps everyone in this job. And I'm not talking about a good day, I'm talking about an interaction, a moment, a few words that leave you with chills, with pride, and with a tsunami of love for your students and your profession. These kairos moments stay with us for a long time. Sometimes forever.

As I brainstormed what to do with my students on their first day this fall, I recalled a first day of class, years ago, that I still remember clearly:

It was the first day of the fall semester and I was teaching AP Language and Composition to 12th graders. I had taught these kids in 10th grade and observed them for my doctoral research when they were in 11th grade, so I knew them well. We had an awkward amount of minutes before the bell (bad time management! chronos nightmare!), so I spontaneously devised a plan to have the students go around and introduce themselves by telling us something that we didn't already know about them. These honors kids had been traveling together for three years, and they knew the details of each others' lives pretty well, from the profound to the mundane. My challenge was for them to tell something new, surprising, and/or unusual. I wanted a detail that would open doors to make us a closer community of learners. I wanted something real.

But, of course, you can't command the real out of anyone. Truths come out when they are ready. So...

...the students moaned and sucked their teeth and rolled their eyes at me, but I made them do it. Most said really banal stuff like, "I'm addicted to texting" or, "I love my dog," but then we got to one student and he blew us away. He gave us his REAL and it rocked us.

Let me preface this by saying that this one student had the deep voice and pregnant pauses of a preacher, but he often lost the class in his esoteric digressions. He was super skinny and tall with an unkempt short afro. He drew science-fiction-y/fantasy characters all over his notebook, was an amazing artist, and was totally obsessed with Japan. He did not wear fashionable clothes; he just came as he was. He sat in the front of the room, yet he could be strangely invisible.

It was his turn. He started to ramble. The students either dismissed him or tried to get him to cut to the chase when he blurted out, in his echoing preacher voice, "I used to have cancer."

At first we were all incredulous. "Shut up," "No you didn't," "That's not funny," the kids (and I) said. He stood firm. He had some kind of nasal carcinoma blastoma. He said he had to memorize the name of it because it was so long and hard to pronounce. It was a tumor behind the nasal plate in his skull, and he had had lots and lots of chemotherapy and radiation. He told us he used to have long dreadlocks that he had grown his whole childhood, but they fell out. He told us he used to be chubby, but he had lost half his body weight. He told us that 13 is an unlucky number because he found out about his cancer on his 13th birthday. He told us he was sick and home-schooled for two years, until he came to our school at age 15. He said he was afraid it would come back. The class was silent. Stunned. Some girls had tears in their eyes. One had her hand over her mouth as if suppressing a scream. We all sat there unsure of what to say as he stared at his desk, his real self floating around the room, all of us processing it.

Then one student starting clapping and the whole class burst into a wild applause, replete with hoots and screams and his name being called out in support. I am not sure who started that clap, but thank you, student. I was too frozen.

He smiled shyly, accepting the applause, waving for everyone to stop. I had goosebumps all over my arms that I tried to hide by crossing them while clapping (a pretty hard trick), and I held back the tears in my eyes.

After the claps faded, I thanked him for being so candid and brave, and I told him, in front of the class: "You have one hell of a college essay to write!" The bell rang seconds later and the class shuffled out into the hallway, many of them slapping him a handshake or patting him on the back, and I was reminded why I love teaching all over again. I was so proud of him for telling us his truth. I was so proud of the students for their reaction of unconditional support. I was so proud to be a teacher.

Those kairos, my teacher friends. You might not get it on day one of school, but think of ways to welcome it into your lessons early on.

 
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