All It Takes Is For One Person To Believe
I have always maintained that my students make me a better human being. Needless to say, when I was recently given the opportunity to teach a 10-week poetry workshop to gifted pre-teens and teenagers in New York City, I was ecstatic.
On the last day of class, aside from hugs, goodbyes, thank-yous, and a presentation, one of the students, let’s call her Maya to respect her privacy, handed me a card. Amongst other humbling scribbles, it read, “It was a pleasure to be in your class. I really enjoyed it. Thank you for opening a new interest in my life.”
Maya was the quietest in the group and sat alone in the back row of the classroom. She wasn’t disrespectful or impolite but seemed a bit detached—at least in the beginning. She would never volunteer to participate in any of the learning games; but every time it was her turn, she would honor her responsibility.
Slowly, as the weeks went by, Maya began to smile and speak up a little, and it became easier to work with her. Once her confidence grew, she showed tremendous interest in the workshop. She would stay back in the classroom during recess. While some of the other kids hung out with me during the breaks to discuss music, arts, fashion, and college applications, Maya would ask questions about styles and forms. She would take the writing prompts seriously and experiment with poetry.
Maya began to share new work—outside of what she was expected to produce in class or homework. Her poems implied there was trouble at home, so I encouraged her to write more. Writing is how I make sense of my world. And I hoped this young girl too could find an emotional vent in her poems.
On the last day, as we were leaving the building, Maya introduced me to her mother who said with a smile, “Ah, so you are the one. Thank you.” Maya then enquired if we could stay in touch—for any poetry-related queries. She came from a family where she would have been coerced into studying the sciences or law. But Maya had decided to keep the love for words burning. As her teacher, I couldn’t have asked for more.
Upon seeing the card later that day, my husband said,
“You made a difference to Maya’s life. Irrespective of what she grows up to become, if she decides to write poetry, you might be the reason. All it takes is for that one person to have faith, listen to us, and tell us that we are good.”
I hadn’t thought of Maya and our interaction in a mentor-mentee light. But it was an interesting consideration. Everyone has something to say.
Sure there are exceptions, but majority of teenagers, like Maya, aren’t out to get the world. They want to be heard. They are at that awkward age where everything feels dramatic. Hormones, peer pressure, parental nagging, teachers at school, and other outside influences—it’s a lot to deal with at such a young age.
Then there is rejection, conformity, anger, resentment, and the need to be somebody. Maybe, just maybe, all they need is a guide to help channelize their energy in the right direction.
Right around the time I was teaching the workshop, a friend of mine got us pre-screening tickets to Adrien Brody’s film “Detachment.” In the film, Brody plays Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher who drifts from classroom to classroom without making any real connections until one assignment opens up a world of emotion and passion for him. Brody stars in the film, alongside Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu and James Caan—teachers in a troubled high school, and said he could relate to the powerful character thanks to his father, Elliot, who worked as a public school teacher.
At the post-screening discussion, Brody broached the subject of mentorship. He mentioned that the drama teacher, at one of the high schools in NYC where his movie had been pre-screened the night before, credited his own success to encouragement from his high school teacher. All it took was for that one person to believe.
If we want younger people to become good human beings or pursue a certain path in life, we have to lead them by example. Not by holding their hands but by giving them the right kind of push. Granted, most teachers and parents try to do their best. But do we really become effective mentors in the process?
One of the lines from my novel, Perfectly Untraditional,
“Becoming a parent and knowing parenting are two separate things,” resonated with my psychologist friend Dona Pal. After finishing the novel, she decided to print those lines and put them up in her office at the high school where she is a counselor. She believes that sometimes parents need talking to more than their kids. Instead of mentoring their children, many try living their unfulfilled desires through the next of kin.
What we tell people stays with them. Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” If we could all allow one person to pick our brains, a dream could be saved. If we could lend our ears to one kid, we would have done a good job as a teacher/parent. If we could inspire one child to never give up and nudge them in the right direction, it would be worth it.
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