Aleya

Have you ever had a person in your life who sees right through any masks, b.s., or little white lies you use to make yourself seem more socially palatable? These people make you uncomfortable, of course. When they talk your eyebrows raise involuntarily and you fidget because you feel stripped and exposed, but also a little relieved that someone has seen you.

Imagine that person showing up in your life as a 12-year-old student in your first real teaching job.  First period, first day. She is sitting two feet from where you stand, sizing you up, arms folded.

You can tell she is a good indicator of how you’ll be viewed and treated as a teacher. You decide that you’d better leave all the normal pleasantries, threats, and how-do-you-dos aside. She will see right past them and call you out as a fraud. That is her job.

You start by revealing things about yourself that kids are always dying to know about a teacher.  “How old are you?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “Are you going to pretend to have more authority than you really do?” “Are you a good cop or a bad cop?” “Are you going to grade us on whether or not we like the subject you teach?”

25. Yes. Nope. 98% Good cop, 2% seriously cranky cop. No, I expect that few of you actually enjoy French class as much as I do, so let’s make this as fun as possible.

Then I added the clincher:  I think most adults are kind of stupid and society sucks.

I hadn’t planned to reveal all that. I couldn’t have anticipated that this honesty and clarity would be so wildly received. To a group of gifted kids in a small independent school, I was something unexpected. I appealed to their budding sense of injustice in the world. I truly wasn’t like the other adults in their lives. I was too green to be jaded or weary. I represented the idea that they wouldn’t have to give up being idealistic and authentic as they got older. They could still be energetic and fun, take risks and dare to try new things.

Aleya was the student who kept me on my toes. She was into choir and drama and not at all into French. She loved to remind me that French wasn’t her favorite subject, but it was endearing. She was just fine being her. She represented the underdeveloped parts of me, then and still today.

If I had walked into that classroom at this point in my life (as a mother of 3, nearly 40 years old), things would have been so much different. I would have cracked jokes and the students would have kindly laughed, but it would have been forced. The rapport with my students today would be built solely on the fact that I held their grades hostage. The beauty of the situation as it happened was that I didn’t know any better.

I didn’t know I was bipolar yet. (Mood disorders can manifest in the mid-late 20s for some people.)  I didn’t have kids, nor did I want kids of my own. I didn’t yet know the anxiety of watching your little people walk out the door with an oversized backpack into a public school. I hadn’t set aside any expectations for my life yet. I was 25. I did not question the idea that anything was still possible for me. 

In fact, as a first year teacher in the middle school I asked, “What else can I do? Maybe take the entire 7th grade class on an international field trip? I will organize a fundraiser to pay for the trip. Can I educate myself and then head up the student advisory program, too?” I totally did those things. I had no throttle.

Fast-forward 10 years.

I was a stay-at-home mom in Arizona. Long stretches of hot days were punctuated by the odd visitor from our old life in Chicago. When Aleya called to say that she’d be in town and proposed that she come to stay for a couple of days, I was thrilled.

When she arrived, I was delighted and grateful that she’d made the journey to meet my family and reminisce. But, do you remember that person in your life who sees right through any masks, b.s., or little white lies you use to make yourself seem more socially palatable? Imagine that person showing up in your life as a 22-year-old former student. She is standing two feet from where you sit, sizing you up, arms folded.

It was as surreal as you might expect to see a grown up person who would have remained forever an adolescent in your mind. Aleya was smart lovely and made me feel incredibly proud – as if I had played a tiny role in this growth. She blew bubbles with my kids in the backyard and we laughed about old stories. I went to pour myself a glass of wine and caught myself feeling as though I shouldn’t be drinking in front of a student. We laughed about that, too.

When her mom came to pick her up the next day, I wanted to find a reason for her to stay. I didn’t bother trying to hold back my emotions when I walked her out to the car. I shed tears. She made fun of me and all was right in the world.

After grown-up Aleya left there was a fresh hurt. I couldn’t have put words to it at the time, but now I realize she was a reminder of who I had been before I stopped teaching -- before children of my own, the Great Recession, anti-depressants, and finding myself with so much to lose that I was afraid to make any choices at all. Her enthusiasm and bright smile shined a light on the cement blocks on my legs. 

That's why adults don't make any sense to kids. They appear to have given up play, passion, and art. They are stupid and society sucks.

I am happy to report that Aleya has visited me several times now over the years, and each time we find ourselves converging. We talk about kids, education, spiritual things, love, middle school, art, and our futures. I am eternally grateful to have someone like Aleya in my world. Adults are not quite as stupid and society sucks a little less.


Much love to you Aley.

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