This afternoon a student passed me, grinning. She’d just visited the eastern-most toilet stall in the “senior” bathroom. The room is decrepit, the soap dispenser is often empty, and the stall doors don’t latch. But on the inside of one door is a hand-written message: “Smile, you’re beautiful.”
I’ll admit that part of the reason I smile when I read this is because it’s spelled and punctuated correctly. But there’s more to it—a student wrote that note. It’s something to think about.
I have always loved teaching. I love sharing what I know. I love seeing the glow when a student gets it and realizes they can achieve excellence. I love watching worlds open up. I love being around young people on the cusp of life—fully aware and capable of thinking and questioning and growing. Their lives flutter with possibility.
But there are days when it’s hard to smile. As a fellow teacher posited to me: “It shouldn’t be this hard to be a kid.” A student discovers she will be homeless this weekend, and the boy across the room hasn’t had a full meal since his free lunch ticket expired two weeks ago—his mother is too embarrassed to fill out the forms. Another girl couldn’t go home last night because the crack dealer next door burned out the entire apartment building, and the boy beside her couldn’t go home for other reasons. One boy sees violence as an inevitable solution because it’s the only one he’s ever seen garner results. Another won’t listen to facts if they favor a viewpoint other than his own.
I’ve often been told that teenagers think they’re immortal. They don’t. They behave like cocky animals and they talk big and they take risks and make stupid choices because they know they’re going to die. They’re terrified and worry their lives will end before they can make a difference in the world.
“What does Egypt look like?” a female student asks during a class discussion about protests around the world, including the strategies of Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. “Is it sandy like in the desert? Are there buildings like in India with goats in the streets?” I talk about Cairo’s 17 million people and modern hotels, adding, “but yes, there is sand.”
“What do they want?” she asks. “Why are they in the streets?”
I tell her I can’t say for sure, but that they probably want the same things she does. They want a free country, they want some power over their lives.
I’m intrigued by her questions. This student has been practically nowhere and seen almost nothing. Usually shy, she stares off, perhaps imagining camels and traffic jams. “I want to go and see it,” she says.
Not one student in three classes has ever heard of Thoreau before today. A few recognize the name of Gandhi. “Mahatma,” one boy suggests.
“That means ‘great soul,’” I inform them.
One girl knows he went on a hunger strike to protest British rule in India. But no one has ever heard of how American men and women sat down at luncheon counters to order a cup of coffee and were abused, spat upon, beaten, and finally arrested merely because they were black. My students are shocked. I hope they’re equally impressed by the courage of those sitters who took abuse to call attention to injustice, and were incarcerated in order to publicize their goals. They have their place in making the world a better place. We talk about that.
The goal in school is to get an education, but for some students the overwhelming goal is survival. They are hungry, homeless, embarrassed by their clothing, their transportation, and by their families. They have no quiet place to study and no one at home to encourage them. They have undiagnosed and untreated health and emotional issues. They deserve so much more than they have. They deserve someone to expect more from them. All of them—every one—wants to be successful, but only rarely do they have a personal, practical, or emotionally satisfying image of what success looks like.
“Make a list of things you want to do before you’re old,” I tell them. “A bucket list,” they say back. They want to graduate and make money. They want to make their parents proud. Some say they want to buy their mom a house. Or go to Egypt. One wants to dance in the street in Chelsea. It’s good that they dream. They need these grand and beautiful dreams.
Too often high school culture concerns nothing much beyond sports and clothing, grades and money. Earning a living is necessary, but money by itself is a sterile goal. They worry too much about prom—it’s unlikely they’ll ever get to dress that way again—and not enough about mathematics. They read all their friends’ posts on Facebook and not nearly enough novels or history books. They use technology without mastering it. They know how to slip through the system without understanding that it’s here to serve their future. They earn grades without gaining an education. They worry about the wrong experiences of high school.
I can’t say who is at fault. Parents tell them the great lie: this is the best time of your life. I warn them that it shouldn’t be true. Life doesn’t go downhill after age eighteen. “It’ll get better,” I tell them. There is so much more.
Teachers try to provide incentives and rewards. I see possibility spread out before my students, waiting for them to find their way. I try to throw doors open to the world, but find students are too busy keeping on their feet to venture out. I see the world wide open to them, but they fear electric fencing. They fear failure. They fear the future. And because of these fears, some of my students will remain right where they are all their lives, turning in ever smaller circles, wearing a hole in their own tiny scrap of rug. I’d like them to fly. Get on a magic carpet and out the door. I’d like them to know the world.
Smile, you’re beautiful. Who wrote it? I wonder. All these students who walk the halls of my school—the future is still open and some of them will make beautiful lives despite bumps along the way, and they’ll return one day to tell about it. And even on a day like today when too many children are moving in frightened circles, I smile. They’re beautiful.