I do this thing where I meet with kids once or twice a week and help them with their English homework. I also double as a counsellor a lot of the time, because being a kid these days is rough, man. (Being a kid is always rough, but I think it's even harder today. If you think navigating the labyrinth that is social media is tough as an adult, imagine trying to fumble your way through it as an awkward teenager. I thank my lucky stars that my adolescence was pre-internet.)
We share a secret, these students and I, because they know that I am on their side, not the side of their parents or teachers. More rewarding than an A+ essay is helping these kids realize that they are more than just the marks they get in school. Marks are important, I tell them, but only insofar as they are stepping stones to one possible future. You have so many more possible futures than you can imagine. There is no single path to success, despite what your parents or teachers might tell you. It might take you a while to find your thing. Some people never find it. It sucks, but that's life. Trust me. I know. But if I can help you find it, I will do everything I can. Now remember to use present tense and active verbs.
One of my kids plays hockey and broke his two front teeth. I noticed right away, and I also noticed how he avoided looking directly at me, frequently putting his hand in front of his mouth. Hey! I said, after a few minutes. Did you break your teeth? Playing hockey? That's awesome! All the best hockey players have no front teeth. Are you getting them fixed soon? And the kid relaxed and we read another chapter in Lord of the Flies. Sometimes you break your teeth. There's no point in trying to hide it. (I'm pretty sure that's a metaphor for something. Life, maybe.)
Twice I have had girls get their periods on my furniture. They are mortified, but I am cool. Periods happen. Sometimes they happen on someone else's couch. (I'm pretty sure that's another metaphor for something.)
My favourite student will be leaving me soon for university. On Friday she asked if she could come for the next couple of weeks, even though her final exams are finished and we have nothing to work on. She said that she can't imagine not seeing me, she doesn't want to stop. And I know that part of this is just the anxiety that accompanies this next step, but part of me also knows that I have played a role in shaping this gorgeous, confident creature who is about to go off into the world and help make it a better place, and she doesn't want to go without me. And that feeling, man. It's indescribable.
It's watching their reaction that moment at the end of Of Mice and Men. Listening to them complain about the pressure their parents are putting on them and reminding them that soon they will be out of the house. Introducing them to Ray Bradbury. Congratulating them on getting 27 on the speaking section of the TOEFL. Discussing the blow-your-mind ending of Life of Pi. Assuaging their fears about university. Reminding them not to procrastinate. Playing poker as a reward for memorizing their vocab lists. Sharing bands. Assuring them that they are not alone in feeling alone. Explaining the symbolism of colours and seasons. Watching comma splices disappear. Having them point something out that I hadn't thought of even though I'd read the book sixteen times.
This, I think, is my strength and my purpose: to help people feel confident and beautiful and smart when they feel self-conscious and ugly and stupid. So when they leave me and fly off to university or (as so often happens) back to Korea, I feel tiny splinters jabbing at me from inside my chest. My darlings, I am so proud of you. Good luck out there in the world. Don't worry too much if you break your teeth or get your period on someone else's couch. Try not to procrastinate. Be confident. Be bold. Keep reading. And riot on.