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Reaching out

There are many things that happen in my life which humble me.  Today such a thing happened.  But before I describe the event, let me offer some background.

I have a student this semester who is brilliant in mathematics.  In many way, he reminds me of myself.  He is very outspoken in class, never afraid to give an answer, almost always right.  After the first day of class, he walked with me and we chatted for a bit.  He told me about how much he loved  math and all of the things he had learned in high school.  I was impressed.  And I felt that we would become good friends over the semester.

I actually felt many times that I should reach out to him.  He seemed to be very bored in class.   As far as I could tell, he already knew the material.  I thought about talking to him but I was never sure exactly what to say or how to reach out.  In hindsight, I suppose I could have offered something outside of class to challenge him more than he was being challenged in class, and to offer some more learning opportunity than he was getting.  

This guy has probably been my favorite student in all my years of teaching.  I'll have some students who show more love of learning and more enthusiasm for math than the average student, but none quite so much as this student.  He loves learning.  He loves logic.  And it was so refreshing to see that. 

When I graded his most recent test, I was very critical.  My goal was to push him beyond his current performance and toward perfection.  I wasn't mean.  I grade his paper unreasonably, but very critically. There was one thing in particular which really frustrated him.  He asked me about it when I handed the tests back at the beginning of class.  I told him why I docked points.  He was upset by it.  He stayed after class to talk to me about it.  I knew that one point on his test was not enough to make him that angry, so I pressed him.  

I was honored by what happened.  He related to me his feelings and the stresses in his life.  He broke down and cried.  His best friend's birthday was just the other day, but this friend passed away back in October.  His roommate is black and has sadly been the object of racism.  There were so many things that have been going on in his life that have all been building up.  And he related all of it to me.  I didn't know how to react.  I wasn't sure if I did it properly.  But I listened to him, let him speak at his own pace, and voiced the empathy that I felt for him.  

I want to make a difference in people's lives.  As a teacher, I have the opportunity to be a mentor.  I have the opportunity to pave the way.  I want to make a difference in my students' lives.  I want them to be better because they had me as a teacher.  

I don't always know how to make a positive impact.  I don't know what is the best way to touch the lives of others for good.  But I believe that in this case, I did a good thing.  Perhaps it was overly harsh of me to grade this man's paper the harsh way in which I graded it.  But I believe that it was the straw that broke the camel's back--the catalyst that tore down his walls of defense and allowed him to open up to me.  I felt privileged to have him relate to me what he had been going through.  I hope that the discussion was beneficial to him and helped relieve, even in the least amount, the negative emotions he has been feeling.  I also hope that I live my life in such a way that people trust me and feel safe in confiding in me.

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