Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Getting In Touch

It's that time of year again. All the tests have been taken, all our marks have been turned in, and the final grades have been posted. Tears have been shed too -- tears of joy and tears of bitter disappointment. I have been hugged, begged, thanked, kissed, harangued, and cried upon.

From the staffroom window, I see one of my students showing her parents around the campus. Her mother exclaims at the pretty flowering trees, the fountain-pool. They pose for photographs, the proud father changing places with the mother as they take turns snapping photos. They put their arms around their daughter and smile. I share their sense of achievement.

In the corridor, one of her classmates still sits in stunned outrage. I've done my best to console her, but it hasn't worked. Never mind that she wouldn't be failing if she'd put in a little more effort, I still feel bad. She will be calling her parents later, telling them the bad news. I share their disappointment too.

I know I did my best, but sometimes I wonder how effective I've been. Sometimes I wish to God I could reach these students, who seem to live in some parallel universe to mine.

In the bathroom, I overhear a conversation in English between two students who sound West African.

"Ooh," one girl laments, "jooost look at all this fat on me! I am so ashaaamed!"

Her friend snorts. "What fat? I don't see fat."

"Look," insists the first girl, "look at this here, you see? This greeeat roll of fat." I can hear the pout in her voice.

Her friend snorts all the louder. "Geeet out."

"I have to lose this fat!"

"GEEET OUT, you do not!"

I've been lurking in the toilet, but now I've got to see these girls. I've got to see with my own eyes just how fat the complaining girl is.

Two sets of brown eyes flit over me as I come out. Both girls are stick thin, in skirts so short I want to throw a sheet over them. Despite their skinniness, they are also curvy and drop-dead beautiful and if there's an ounce of fat on either of them, only a determined anorexic could find it. I hope to God the girl who thinks she's fat is just belly-aching. I'd like to tell her to go pig out on ice cream -- that life is too short to angst about weight, but she wouldn't listen to a random middle-aged woman. A random middle-aged teacher. We live in separate worlds, these girls and I.

The girls freshen up their lipstick and pat their perfect hair with manicured fingers. They leave the bathroom in a fog of body spray, clattering on high heels. Ah well, I'm glad that at least one of them has some sense in her.

Before I can leave, the door slams open again and another girl hurries inside. She is in tears. She grips the side of the sink and leans over it, sobbing. I wash my hands slowly, embarrassed to be witnessing her misery. I don't know what to do as she dabs helplessly at her tear-stained reddened eyes and nose; she must be mortified that a strange woman is in here with her. I ought to leave and let her cry in peace.

But I just can't do this. There's something about the way this girl cries that reminds me of my own daughters, as toddlers. She seems on the verge of getting over her grief, and then new waves of misery wash over her and she bursts into fresh tears.

"Are you okay?" I ask as gently as possible and she squeezes her lips together and tries to nod, but her face crumples and more tears slip out.

Suddenly, I can't stand it. I open my arms, the way I used to do when my own little girls were in tears. And to my amazement, this girl steps right into them. She accepts my hug, letting me pat her back and offer her mindless "There, theres". For a brief time, she even stops crying. When I say goodbye, she even gives me a tremulous smile.

My inner mother hen is thrilled. Finally I've reached one of them.



Angela said...

Now that is a great story. You are one awesome lady, Mary!

adrienne said...

What a sweet story. We all need a great big mama bear hug every now and then.

Jacqui said...

We do all need a mama bear hug now and then. I'm so glad you gave her one.

Charlie said...

Just plain wonderful, Mary. And you know, the consoling hug is the best kind around. Those kids were so lucky to have you . . .

debra said...

There is a sweetness to your story, Mary, one that all mothers (probably fathers, too) can appreciate. We never know how we reach people, do we.
Thanks for sharing this.

Robin said...

Mary, you're so lovely. That was a wonderful story. Everyone needs a hug sometimes, don't they? How nice that you were able to provide it.

Carrie said...

Awww! I'm so glad you were there for her. This story brightens my day.

Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- Thank you! If anyone tried this on MY daughter, I'm not sure they'd have received the same response, so I really lucked out with this girl.

Adrienne -- I've been on the receiving end often enough; it felt lovely to be able to pay this back.

Jacqui - I came so close not to doing this. I worried that this girl might feel patronized, or worse yet get the wrong idea. But I'm glad it worked out.

Charlie -- I loved YOUR hug story and count that as an influence. I was just so glad that in my case -- as in yours -- both hugger and huggee were on the same page.

Debra -- Thank you.

When I first started teaching here, I felt so disappointed that I seemed too middle-aged and, for lack of a better word, 'teachery' to connect with students the way I used to. So this was a welcome chance to truly connect.

Robin -- It was so nice to step out of my role of teacher and back into my role of mother and healer of hurt feelings! Not that I healed any feelings, but I know I offered a tiny palliative.

Carrie -- I'm so glad it does! It really brightened mine. If this girl had swatted me away, I'd have totally understood, but the fact that she accepted the hug just melted my heart.

Tigermama said...

I am absolutely certain that you HAVE reached many of those kids. A good teacher ALWAYS leaves a mark and you are one fabulous teacher.

Charles Gramlich said...

I sigh a bit at this story. It's a wonderful one, but as a male teacher I've never hugged a female student unless there were lots of other folks around. I've seen ones who needed it but the risk is just too great.

Mary Witzl said...

Tigermama -- You are sweet to say that, and oh, don't I wish! One thing I can say with perfect confidence is that I AIM to be a fabulous teacher.

Charles -- My husband sympathizes: he feels exactly the same and has experienced similar frustrations. He's had girl students in tears for various reasons, and he's felt unable to hug them for fear of being misunderstood. Conversely, I can't hug my boy students, and a lot of them are just as needy. Last term, one boy's mother died and if anyone needed a hug, he did. I was forced to make do with shoulder pats.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Sometimes human touch is more powerful than what mere words could ever convey.

Kim Ayres said...

Difficult to believe you've been teaching over there for a full academic year now. Is summer likely to be busy?

Kit said...

That mothering instinct is so strong - I'm glad that she was able to accept the comfort and you could share it.
I know my girls also wouldn't be able to accept a hug from a stranger, but maybe that girl just needed it right then. Acts of random kindness make the world go round!

Bish Denham said...

Oh, what a touching story. Where there is one, the ripples spread out as on a pond when a rock is thrown, and others will be touched as well.

laura said...

That was a touching story and I'm so glad you were there for her. I remember when I realized my marriage was OVER, I had to leave my desk at work and go to the ladies lounge (I didn't want anyone to see me cry). I was huddled in a miserable ball of agony when one of my co-workers walked in. I broke down and sobbed my story to her. She firmly grabbed both of my hands in hers, hunched down to eye level with me, and said, "You are going to be OK!" It was that simple yet I've never forgotten it. I'ts been twelve years and I am indeed OK.

Anne Spollen said...

Nice story -- it reminds me that people are connected all over the planet in the same, exact ways.

Vijaya said...

The power of human touch! Beautiful story.

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- You are right. I still don't know how much English this girl spoke or understood, but she knew what two outstretched arms meant.

Kim -- No, it isn't! And we'll be nipping back to Scotland for a short time and hope to see you there!

Kit -- My mothering instincts haven't had enough use lately, so this girl gave me a big boost.

I asked my eldest daughter what she would do in a similar situation and she said it would depend on how bad she felt and what the person offering the hug was like. I hate to think of some perfectly sweet person being rebuffed.

Bish -- The older I get, the more I remember the small and large kindnesses I have been shown in life. These are especially welcome memories given some of the other things I've encountered.

Laura -- What a great story that is, and how wonderful that you can remember it after twelve years! When we were living in Japan and I was having a lot of trouble with our eldest daughter, I ran into one of our neighbors on a particularly difficult day when I was feeling emotionally spent. I'll never forget how she heard me right out and comforted me. We can't always do the right thing by the people we encounter in life, but it is wonderful when we can.

Anne -- We are, really. All too often we pay too much attention to the differences and not enough to the many things that link us in our humanity. I am convinced that there are more links than differences.

Vijaya -- Thank you!

A Paperback Writer said...

And every word of this is so true.
I've had the failures-by-choice (I long ago learned that it's not my fault if I do my best and they refuse to learn from me), the "fat" skinny girls, and the kids undergoing huge teen drama.
I still give hugs -- to boys too. I've had many a boy in tears.

And don't forget the truth about end of term grades: it's all a religious difference at that point, as the students hope to be saved by grace, but every teacher knows that faith without works is dead.

Carolie said...

Dammit, Mary! I have to stop reading you at the end of the day, if you're going to hit me with emotions like that! What a beautiful little morsel of a story...and now I'm dripping all over my computer, wanting a hug from my mommmmmmyyyyyyy....

Carolie said...

I wish you were here in this land of Adults Never Touch Each Other...I'd ASK for a hug! Ha!

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- I love that comment about faith without work being doomed to fail -- and yes, my students seem to rely too heavily on prayer and not enough on honest study.

There are a few boys I might hug, but I suspect it would be easier to do this with 13-year-olds than it would with great hulking 20-year-olds. In another decade or so I will be old enough that it won't really matter whether I hug girls or boys.

Carolie -- I am sending you a queen-sized cyber-mama-hug right now!

I was lucky in Japan: I had half a dozen neighbors who gave me hugs at odd moments. I was so surprised: by the time I got them, I'd lived in Japan so long I'd gotten out of the hugging custom.

Kim Ayres said...

Woohoo! keep me posted :)

A Paperback Writer said...

Good point about the age of the kids involved, Mary.
I'm already so old that the kids don't care. To a junior high kid, anyone over 30 (sometimes over 25, depending on the kids) is considered to be asexual because who could possibly be interested in them at that point?
(actually, ever since I hit 40, all adult males treat me the same way, so it's pretty much the same thing.)

Bish Denham said...

Mary, Can you come out and play? I've tagged you!


Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- I certainly will, as soon as we book our tickets!

APW -- 25? TWENTY-FIVE? My God, I wasn't even HUMAN until I was 25!

I may be old, but I'm also slightly in denial. Kids here kiss the hands of their elders and press them against their faces as a sign of respect. Only one kid did that with me, and he muttered an apology. I'm hoping he thought I was almost too young for this. Like I say, I'm in denial.

Bish -- Thank you! I love being tagged and I almost always play along. Love the Seven Deadly Sins, too. Only sloth keeps me from playing along occasionally...

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing that!

I imagine it must be wonderful for a teacher to receive some bit of evidence that she's "reaching" her students, that she's making a difference. I'm glad you had this moment, but I'll bet the reality is that you've touched more lives than you'll ever know. (Yay teachers!!)