A teacher’s capacity for sadness

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by bledsoe on April 8, 2012

Several years ago I got called in for jury duty and I ended up being selected.  It was my first, and so far only, experience being on a jury and what I remember most strongly about the whole thing was how sad I felt afterward.

The case involved a young woman accusing her ex-boyfriend of threatening the safety of her and their young son.  I don't remember all the details, but apparently the two of them had an argument one afternoon and later that evening he came to her apartment, presumably to continue the argument.  She said he made verbal threats to her, their young son, and the woman's girlfriend, who was also present.  She also said he threatened them with a handgun, and fled when she called the police.  He said he came to her apartment to talk with her, but denied threatening her or having a handgun.  The handgun issue was particularly important since the boyfriend was on parole at the time, and for him to be in possession of a handgun would have meant a violation of his parole and thus would have sent him back to prison.

The court case lasted a couple of days, with another day or so of jury deliberation, and I remember when it started how I was kind of excited to be participating in something that I'd only previously ever seen on TV.  I was thinking how cool it was to be listening to testimony, and weighing evidence, and evaluating arguments, and basically just participating in this wonderful thing called the American Criminal Justice System.

By the end of the trial, however, I was just overcome with sadness and despair.  This couple presumably used to love each other and were the parents of a young boy, yet they were now separated, the father was an ex-convict, the mother was on welfare and living in public housing, and their relationship was so broken that they fought with each other so violently that the woman felt compelled to call the police for protection.  I had begun to realize that regardless of what our verdict was, these people's lives were just terribly sad and nothing that happened in that courtroom was going to substantially change that.  I also remember thinking that I did not want to have a job as a judge or lawyer, since I imagined that they would have to deal with these kinds of depressing problems all the time, and how hard it would be to have to deal with all that sadness on a regular basis.

Having worked as a high school teacher for a few years now, I realize that I now actually do have a job like the judge and the lawyers.  I work with teenagers on a daily basis, and many of them have lives which can only be described as sad.  Many are poor and live in single-parent homes, and often the one parent they have is too overwhelmed to provide the kind of parenting that the young person needs.  Not only that, but I see them making really bad decisions on a regular basis: choosing to skip class, or not do any work, or get pregnant, or drop out of school.  And I'm aware that regardless of what happens in my classroom, I'm not likely to have much of an impact on the lives of a lot of these students.  What's more, I work in what's probably a pretty average American high school, where the number of students like this is relatively low; it's hard for me to imagine the difficulty of working in a high-poverty school, one in which almost all of the students have sad lives.

I've decided that one of the traits that a successful teacher has to develop is a capacity for sadness, and I say "develop" because I don't think you're likely to have this trait when you start, any more than I had it when I started my stint on jury duty.  If you're not able to develop the ability to be appropriately sad about the lives of some of your students, you're not going to be able to last as a teacher because the sadness is going to overwhelm you.  You're going to want to make your sadness go away by trying to make your students' lives better, and often you're not going to be able to do that so you're just going to be stuck with the sadness.  So you have to be able carry that sadness with you and not let it keep you from doing your job well.  Because the fact is that you are going to be able to make the lives of many of your students better, just not all of them; and if you allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the sadness of some of your students' lives, you won't be there for the rest of them.  And that's not going to be good for them or for you.

Image by Pink Sherbet Photography via Flickr.

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