Diary of a Student Teacher: Breakups, Compassion, and Dogfighting

10/08/2013 04:41 pm ET | Updated Dec 08, 2013

As she was breaking up with me, a woman once told me she loved me.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I know you."

In the moment, that felt like the worst reason I could imagine. I wanted it to be about some singular quality I had, some special niche in my mind or eddy in my heart. After all, she could have known anybody. I was on the receiving end of a breakup, and her words carried exactly the double-edged message I didn't want to hear. I care for you, but that care is beginning to shrink, to stretch thin across the increasing removes at which we find ourselves. Soon, it will envelop you no differently than it envelops anyone else.

In other words, intimacy is its own kind of love, but it isn't the same thing as patience. Or passion, for that matter.

* * *
A friend and I were once discussing Michael Vick, the NFL quarterback convicted for his involvement in a dogfighting ring. My friend described what he thought Vick deserved - a brutal fate, worse than those met by murderers and rapists. There was a vindictiveness in my friend's voice, a pride in his ability to draw a line, to place limits on his own compassion. Abusing poor, helpless animals is beyond the pale, he seemed to say. And that's where Vick belongs as well.

* * *
In a more vivid and visceral way than I've ever known, teaching is showing me that that attitude isn't good enough. It feels like it's never sufficient to say, "I'm not interested in what led to that behavior - just stop," or "I don't care what you're going through - just do the work." Just looking into my kids' faces -vulnerable, uncertain, and more openly bewildered by life than most adults - renders that approach absurd.

That isn't to say, of course, that anything goes. But it is to say that firmness always has to be accompanied by curiosity. The more I learn about these kids, the more difficult it is to be angry with them, to judge their behavior. And the less I judge, the more I feel a kind of love for them growing.

* * *
But if it isn't okay to limit our compassion for kids, than it isn't okay to do so with adults either. Because on so many levels, we're simply tall children - perhaps more capable of disguising our selfishness or masking our immaturity, but no less confused.

I once read a newspaper story about the sentencing of a man convicted of double murder. The judge began her statement by saying something like, "I could talk for days about how evil you are." And I thought, No, you couldn't. You probably don't know very much about this man at all, and you don't want to. You're much more interested in creating a monster that makes you feel good by comparison.

Judgment likes to think that it's coextensive with knowledge, but it isn't; they're much closer to opposites. Judging doesn't want to know, because wanting to know requires admitting to not knowing. And that's the one thing judging can't accept.

This essay originally appeared at The Wheat and Chaff.