When I was a new, young professor, I had this student who wore a shirt and tie to class every day. He carried a briefcase and wore Dwight Schrute glasses. When, as an icebreaker, I asked each student to tell me his or her major and favorite band, he answered that he didn’t have a favorite band, but that he had a favorite composer. Every other student in the class glanced sideways at each other, stifling laughter and, even I — the adult, the teacher — had to work to keep a straight face and resist the urge to join the compelling, almost intoxicating ruthless majority.
I had another student, several years later, who clearly had some social/emotional/learning disabilities. He had a letter of accommodation allowing him extra time on tests, permission to take notes on a laptop, etc. He was brilliant. He knew everything I taught him within moments of my teaching it (and often before) and although his quizzes were sloppily handwritten and often the last to be turned in, they were always perfect. He asked multiple questions in every class in a voice that was loud and earnest and his questions often lacked subtlety and common sense. One in-class assignment asked students to write something that would ordinarily be inappropriate for the classroom and when I read it aloud, this student laughed heartily along with everyone else. Except, when it was over, he kept laughing. In fact, I heard him laughing about it down the hall after class had been dismissed. The other students glanced sideways at each other, stifling laughter, the way I now know students do when someone in their midst doesn’t meet their social expectations.
That time, I felt only warmth toward the student. And also a little protective. I was several years older and several years more confident in the classroom, but more than that — by that time, I was a mother. And all of a sudden, my students weren’t just random teenagers. Once I became a mother, my students became my child, 15 years later. And that changed everything.
I think that most parents, when they think of the people their kids will become, think of other adults that they know. Of themselves and their siblings and other older specimens of people. Most parents have memories and stories. They might have nieces or nephews, or some friends with college-aged kids that they can use as templates for their own future teenagers. But, in large part, the long-term effects of our current parenting choices are hypothetical. We encourage our preschoolers to play soccer because we loved soccer. Or because no one introduced us to sports and we feel like we suffered because of it. We force food choices on our kids because we want them to be healthy. Or, at least not fat. We teach them to brush their teeth so they won’t get cavities, but also so they won’t be the kid with bad breath. We hope that the choices we make will turn out a well-rounded, well-loved person in the end.
I had another student once who always smelled like soap and mint. He was so laid back and had a great sense of humor. He was an excellent writer, he played rugby, he had a great bromance with his roommate. No one ever had to stifle laughter because of something he said.
Working where I do is like being given a magic looking glass, through which I can see all the possible futures for my own son. He could turn out to be the kid who has only a favorite composer. He could turn out to be the kid who asks the loud earnest questions. Or he could turn out to be the kid who smells like soap and mint. Is there anything I can do to nudge him one way or the other? Should I have given him siblings so he will be more “normal?” Should I stop teaching him complex vocabulary so he doesn’t get laughed at when his diction is inappropriately awesome? Should I make him stop trying to force kids to play with him so he doesn’t become an outcast in retaliation? I see all the outcomes in my classroom and I can become obsessed with trying to create the perfect set of childhood circumstances to yield the most desirable result.
Maybe that kid who carries a briefcase to class was perfectly happy. Maybe he had a few great friends who really got him and the cruelty of the rest of the world around him didn’t even touch him. Maybe if his parents had tried to “make him more normal” he would have always felt wrong. Like a failure. Maybe his parents just stood by and supported him and gave him the strength to cope with whatever came his way.
But maybe he always wished he fit in better. Maybe he blamed his parents for not helping him. Maybe he wished they’d taken a more active role in guiding him down the middle of the road.
I’m worried about The Who. Worried about what kind of teenager and adult he will turn out to be. Worried about what I am supposed to do and not do in order to help him find his way in the world. Worried about knowing how much is my job and how much is his. I have found, over these past twelve years of observation, that there are no answers. That every kid and every family and every set of circumstances is unique. But that doesn’t stop the pain in my heart when I watch The Who get passed over or hurt because of something that maybe I could have helped him avoid.