Teachers, like therapists, spiritual caregivers and medical professionals are taught protocols of respecting our and others’ boundaries early and throughout coursework. It is required that we navigate between providing care while remaining at a level of emotional distance. We are trained to provide genuine empathy and sympathy while maintaining a self-protective shield of detachment.
But the reality for most of us is far more difficult. Some days we just soften and fail. And I am deeply grateful that we do.
I discovered today that the very first student I worked with at my current job has died. He was a wonderful young man who taught me much about what I had taken on as a teacher to very ill children. From our first session together until the morning I hugged him goodbye, he was honest, straightforward and generously shared his feelings and opinions. Once he decided he could trust me, he became willing to share his powerful truths, and listen to mine.
When he told me early on that he knew he would not survive, and thought it was “stupid” to read whatever the assigned novel was–I gave him “The Little Prince.” Of course there was initial resistance, but Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s tale opened discussions between the two of us that ranged from WWII aviation to the reality of dreams. No, it wasn’t the assigned literature, and yes, we spent less time on taxonomy and Algebra I than we should have.
But we each learned. He learned that imagining was still possible through grueling courses of chemo and radiation, and that silliness is an act of bravery equal to anger. I learned what this job would require of me–and that my first obligation is to listen–always.
As we said our goodbyes, more than a year ago, he gave me two paper sculptures he and his mother had made during their stay. One was a giant spider, the other a proportionately even larger housefly. Absolutely nothing cute about them, they were a dare from him for to me to display them. Which of course I did. I gave him the copy of “The Little Prince.” When he tried to refuse with, “But I already read it,” I think he expected my response: “This is one of those books you read more than once. It’s like having a friend who is always there.”
When I heard the news of his passing today, my eyes went right to the spider and fly still hanging in my classroom. And then to another copy of “The Little Prince” on the bookshelf. And it seemed appropriate that it was raining as I later walked home in tears.
Each day I am privileged to spend my time with children who are very, often terminally ill. I listen to the hopes and fears from the families. I watch the scrupulous medical and therapeutic caregivers who unfailingly provide treatment with gentleness and respect. I am fortunate to both see the successful return for follow-ups, and give over my classroom to families saying their last goodbyes.
This, at least for me, makes the essential visible. There are no boundaries to that.