Before I was a writer, I was a teacher.
One of my most memorable students was named Ahmed.
I didn’t know much about Ahmed when he first came to me. I knew he was an eighth grader, that he had recently moved with his family from Rwanda. I knew his spoken English was proficient, but if he didn’t catch up with his reading and writing he was in danger of not moving on to high school.
Over time I learned a few more things about him. I learned he loved basketball, and couldn’t sit still for more than two minutes. I learned he had a boisterous personality, and was never afraid to say what was on his mind.
I learned he had an opinion about everything.
These are the things teachers learn about their students the things that lead us to respond to certain students in certain ways.
So although I started my teaching career with all kinds of ideals about being a teacher who didn’t marginalize kids or judge them and who always expected the best and called them to their highest selves —
When it came time to put those ideas into practice, like with Ahmed, I found it more difficult than I expected.
I found myself saying the same things to Ahmed, over and over again.
“Ahmed, why are you out of your seat?”
“Ahmed, where’s your backpack?”
“Ahmed, are you even listening to me?”
Before long I had resigned to the assumption that Ahmed could never, and probably would never, learn to read and write well enough to graduate high school. I wished I could do something to help him, but I had done everything I could.
Then one day while I was in the middle of a thrilling lecture about the correct use of exclamation points, Ahmed interrupted me mid-sentence.
“Why’s you so lonely, miss?”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“You’s so lonely all the time. How come?”
I stood shocked, on my little teacher’s pedestal at the front of the room, and without a word, continued the lecture, but Ahmed wasn’t phased. He raised his hand, as I had taught him (numerous times) to do when he had a question.
“Do you have a question, Ahmed?” I asked.
“Is it about exclamation points?”
“No ma’am.” (at least he was honest)
I asked him to wait until after class, assuming that would deter him. But it didn’t. In fact, he came to my desk, even more intense than before. “Why’s you so lonely, miss?” He asked, looking across my desk. I shuffled papers back and forth as I talked, trying to explain how I didn’t know what he was talking about.
Eventually, at my insistence, he meandered to his next class, leaving me alone for the next forty-five minutes — my prep period.
As soon as the door closed behind him, I cried.
I cried because he was right, and he was the only one who had seen. I cried because, as far as I could tell, I had convinced everyone else I wasn’t lonely — and this kid, this stupid twelve year old kid who drove me crazy — was the only one who had seen through my smokescreen.
A few months later, during parent-teacher conferences, I learned there was more to Ahmed than just a larger-than-life personality and a love for basketball. I learned his parents had been killed in the Rwandan genocide, and his aunt and uncle had fled to the United States and brought him with them.
I learned his uncle was a well-meaning, hard-working man, who was now acting as his father, and who barely spoke English himself.
I learned he was hard on Ahmed (yelled at him in front of me) for not getting better grades, and for disrespecting his teachers.
I watched tears well up in Ahmed’s eyes, feelings of failure overwhelming him. This sweet, simple, twelve-year-old kid tried to hold it together. And while I watched him fight back tears of loss and pain, my heart softened. I thought of the day he told me I was lonely. He saw me that day, and now, I saw him, too.
After that, things changed with Ahmed and me.
Things change when we see each other.
Where I used to think I had “done everything I could,” I started to see more ways I could help. I would stay late, come early, soften my tone, and even lie awake at night wondering what else I could do to be a better teacher to him.
Something powerful happens when we see each other. We move beyond thinking we’ve “done everything we can” and start exploring what it means to offer our whole selves to someone, to suffer with them, and to let them suffer with us.
We start seeing how we’re more similar to them than we are different.
I don’t know where Ahmed is today. The year I taught him was the last year I taught before I quit my job to go on a 50 State road trip.
But I will never forget what he taught me, that the ability to see people is no small deal, and that sometimes those of us who are best at seeing others are those of us without much to speak of. And sometimes the rest of us, as well-intentioned as we are, get our vision blocked with all of our stuff — our privilege and degrees and education.
This year I’m turning 30 on May 30th and instead of a big party or presents, I’m raising $30,000 to build a classroom in Uganda.
It’s more money than I have and it feels like a bigger project than I can handle. But I’m tired of pretending like I’ve done “everything I can do” to see people who would otherwise be lost, forgotten.
I’m throwing my whole self into it, giving a little more than feels comfortable.
And thanks to Ahmed, maybe students just like him a half a world away will feel seen, valued and loved, too.
Has there been a time someone unexpected has shed light on issues in your life? How did it impact you?
[Photo: John Steven Fernandez, Creative Commons]