Last Thursday night, on a high school stage in the outskirts of a Wine Country town, I cried. In front of eighty students and dozens of parents and faculty, I lost my composure and broke down. It was the first time I’ve cried in over a year.
My students would like to think they were tears of joy, and to a large extent, they were. At the conclusion of our final concert, they had just gotten through presenting to me a gift of gratitude for my year of service as a student-teacher: a job required of me by my credential program, a thankless job many would see as nothing more than an obligation, a hoop to reluctantly jump through on the way to the big bucks and grand fortunes of teaching. Surely, I was moved by their sincere expression of thanks to a man they had met not even a year ago. It’s nice to be appreciated. But that was only part of it. I was moved by a profound sadness as well.
You see, at the heart of each human being rests two desires: to love and be loved. I wanted desperately for my students to love me, and I believe many of them do. And, likewise, I love my students. But only because I had the luxury to do so.
I worked hard. I worked so damned hard it ate away at my life. When I got home at the end of each day, I couldn’t think. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t blog or compose. I couldn’t even play music, even though I was teaching it. In March, I even started seeing therapy. Throughout my year, I felt as though I were losing an integral part of myself; some melancholic introspective thread of thought, of which I have always been proud, was being shrouded by a concrete goal: get your credential (and a job and a living and a future), as well as some abstract goal: love and be loved. My identity was a sacrifice I had to make for these goals. For a year, I loved Rock ‘n Roll because my students loved Rock ‘n Roll, even though I’m a Classical man. I played guitar because my students needed me to be a guitar player, even though I don’t know jack about the guitar. I was always joyful and optimistic because my students needed an adult in their lives with a smile on their face, even though I’m often lonely and possibly depressed.
It was exhausting.
And yet, being exhausted was a choice I had made. I wanted to be exhausted. No, I needed to be exhausted. And fortunately, I had time to be exhausted, and this time made all the difference. I was available for my students. While my mentor was MCing a concert, I had the privilege of being backstage with them, counseling them through their crises. While my mentor was coordinating with other directors during field trips and other such excursions, I had the opportunity to take my students out to lunch or dinner, to listen to their stories, to sympathize with their plights, to offer my limited insights and lofty words of wisdom. I had the privilege of being an adult who not only cared, but was also present and available to them, and eventually loved by them, just as I had always wanted to be. And of course, the more I learned about them, the more I loved them back.
Because again: at the heart of each individual is the need to love and be loved. I have this need. They have this need. We are no different.
And yet, time moves forward. Today, I am a student-teacher. Next year, I’ll be whisked away to a real job as a real teacher, with a salary and benefits and all those other fancy symbols of a functional adulthood. And surely, one would think, I’ll establish the same connections with my future students as I did with my present students.
But what if I can’t? What if I’m not available to do so?
Today, when I go home, I go home alone to a studio in a large house with three strangers from Craigslist. I have no available friends, I have no available family, leaving me available to commit myself to my students. Whatever loneliness I had felt was eventually eliminated by fulfilling the teacher role. I was no longer lonely because I had students who enjoyed my leadership, my insight, my wisdom, my company, and so on and so forth. And my students had an adult they could count on. Everybody wins!
But what about when I have a wife and kids? Will I have the time and energy to know each and every one of my students as I do now? What about five years from now when I have five graduating classes all coming to visit me while I’m struggling to focus all my efforts on the current year? Or fifteen years from now when I’ve had eight-hundred students, half of them with names like Tim or Sarah (The one who played horn? No, the one who played trumpet. Graduated in 2022? No, 2026.). To them, I will always be their music teacher, the torch-bearer, leading them through the darkness into the light. But to me, I fear they will blend into the fabric of students past and students future, just as I too blend into the fabric of my own revered music teacher’s thirty or so graduating classes.
And I don’t want them to be a fabric.
Perhaps I am naive. Give me years of experience and surely I will scoff at my current self and my melodramatic naiveté. Regardless, I am afraid. People you love, people who love you, these people shouldn’t become part of a fabric.
There, on that stage, for a brief and powerful moment, I fathomed the impossible strength it must take to be a great teacher: to see hundreds if not thousands of individual faces and to love each and every one of them as they deserve, as long as they need to be loved as the individuals they are and always will be. In awe of that unfathomable strength, I felt weak. I felt overmatched.
And I cried.