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Those ten times my middle school students tried to compliment me with what turned out to be total—somewhat fair—burns: photo

1. "Your student from last year was totally wrong about you. He said your voice is monotonous and boring, but I think it's super interesting and goes up and down a reasonable amount."

When I decided my passion was as much about spreading a love of language and literature to students as it was for writing my own stories, I kind of forgot about the public speaking/performance/entertainer aspect. When we go into teaching and not the theatre, we don’t always realize that we will be on a stage anyway. The audience is often disinterested, exhausted, hormonal, forced to be there, anxious about understandably more pressing matters that lie outside the classroom, and yet they can be tough critics with exacting expectations. My voice—which has over an almost decade of teaching been paradoxically described as boring, monotonous, whiny, ditzy, fast, slow—and how it would be received never even entered my brain when I applied to grad school for a masters in education. I knew I’d always cringed listening to myself on an answering machine, but didn’t think that through in my career choice. But it’s pretty important! Not if they like it or not and how my vanity feels about that, but that if I want to be effective at helping them learn, I need to speak in such a way that engages them, invites their attention, and holds it for the duration of a lesson. Much like the advice we’re given ad nauseum when writing and submitting short stories or essays for publication: say something worth hearing in a way that’s enjoyable to listen to.


2. "I am obsessed with that outfit. Why'd you wear your glasses instead of contacts today? It kind of affects the outfit."

I’m not too great at assembling noteworthy outfits, as I’ve always been a comfort over fashion kind of girl and an overly modest dresser (“you like scarves a lot, like really really like them…it’s not even cold out” as one stylish student put it), and my feet and high heels just do not mix. My students’ glasses or contacts or clothing preferences didn’t phase me. If I were that sensitive, I wouldn’t have survived because they always had many thoughts on this subject and noticed every little physical change I ever made, like if my tiny nose ring were a new color, or if my highlights started to fade. Their attention to detail was impressive! Didn’t always translate to the writing, but it did sometimes.


3. "Wow your hair actually looks good today. If you know how to do it like that, why don't you do it every day?"

Conveying some semblance of effort in my appearance to give off the air that I cared about being there with them and their opinion of me also didn’t rank high on my list of priorities. My hair clumped in a dry tangled rats nest barely held together by an elastic tie wasn’t ideal, but it was all I had time and energy for, I told myself. I almost always had stayed up most of the night reworking the next day’s lesson plans based on what had taken place in classes that day and tailoring them to each different group’s progress, as well as grading endless stacks of papers and giving as much feedback as I could before passing out under them and my open laptop. Still, I probably could have made use of the hairbrush I did in fact own once in a while.


4. "Hi, I'm here to hang out with you! I tried these three other teachers first, but they all told me to go away, so then I came to you.”

I wasn’t a popular kid as a student, so I didn’t expect to be the popular kid as a teacher.


5. "Oh my god, oh my god, you got someone to want to marry you!! Congratulations!"

Like most teachers, I didn’t make enough time for my own social life. When we’re so busy—we think—being noble and sacrificing ourselves for our students, we forget that a teacher who is not happy and well-rounded outside of the classroom doesn’t make for a very compelling or inspiring role model at the front of the classroom.


6. Continuation of #5: "I can be your maid of honor, right? I mean you're always here at school till like 6pm. We must be your only friends and I'm like your best one."

My husband not being a fellow teacher helped me emerge from my self-imposed bubble of lesson plans, grading, faculty meetings, parent teacher conferences, and actually leave work before 5:30pm once in a while. But I did enjoy some of those late evenings of silly stories and joking around with my students and letting my guard down enough to remind them I was a human person with a sense of humor.


7. "I like catching all your grammar mistakes because it shows me I'm getting good at English, so thanks!"

They could easily still catch my many grammar mistakes now. Teacher, writer, editor—those titles don’t change that. At least they were picking up what I was putting down!


8. "I thought I loved your class, but my high school teacher—man, now he is really awesome. He’s actually funny."

My brand of sarcasm was a hit when they got my jokes, and not so much when they didn’t.


9. "So what are you good at? You seem like you'd be good at a lot of stuff. And don't say teaching because that's not a talent."

My students challenging and encouraging me to continue with my own creative writing while I was teaching the subject to them is something for which I am so grateful to them now. Modeling the vulnerability of reading my own writing aloud to them and letting them workshop it with me, so they could see the power of that support and fellowship in action, and want to experience it themselves helped me as a writer as much as it did them as creative writing students. The whole time I was a teacher, I never called myself a writer or even allowed myself to think it privately. It was their belief in me and not so gentle push that helped me to start tapping back into that side of myself that I had sort of shelved for a long time.


10. “Oh, you’re going to try to do the writing thing for real now? That’s cute.”

Having learned more about myself and life than I ever thought possible from them as we were all growing up together, and building a much thicker skin than I could have imagined in the process, I am definitely ready to go all in on this “cute” reaching for my dreams/writing thing now. Vulnerability, rejection, and all.


image: Pixabay