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Annals of Teaching: Being Wrong

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The first members of the high school class of 2013 started walking across the stage weeks ago, and it'll probably be a couple more before they're all done. It's a time for celebration, a time for tears, for joy, for a few regrets, and for enormous pride. The grumps can claim that an American high school diploma isn't worth much, but try telling that to the kids and parents whose beaming pictures fill ten thousand Facebook pages.

It's also a time for teachers to take stock. That's our work walking across those stages, each flushed face a story and each diploma the merest token of lives together, theirs and ours. It's at least in part a story of our own hopes, our dismay, our sweat, and even our tears.

It's also, sometimes, a story of our mistakes. One of my little secrets (and I've occasionally found other teachers willing to acknowledge it as theirs, too) is the pleasure of having been wrong.

I learned about all this when I was growing up from my father, whose former students would often show up at the house, sometimes decades later, sometimes sporting a family and always sporting a story and a smile.

Pop would greet the visitors, sit them down, often them a drink, listen, ask a bunch of questions, and smile a lot. He loved these visits, these affirmations of his work--living proof that he'd done something worthwhile with his life, as if he wasn't really quite certain; I'm not sure he was.

A theme of these visits was often, pretty clearly, the visitor's desire to do a bit of affirming on his own. A significant portion of them, it seemed, had left the school under something of a cloud; a few, indeed, had been expelled. There may have been hard feelings once, but no longer--never a sign of bitterness or anger. All was forgiven. As Pop might have explained it (but in fact he never tried) kids do stupid things sometimes, and sometimes those things have necessary consequences, but you need to be responding to the behavior, the decision, not to the kid.

I remember my first year working at Pop's school, doing some substitute teaching and trying to set up a development office for a place that had never raised a dime. One gray March day I was called to my father's office. He needed me to tend a student who had rifled the school secretary's desk and been caught. Now he was on his way home to Georgia, but his plane left later in the day.

Look after Talcott (not his real name), said Pop. Why don't you drive him up to the sugarbush and show him how they make maple syrup?

What? I thought to myself. Well, Talcott didn't have much to say that day, but he saw sap being boiled down and maple sugar hardening in molds. I bought him a little box of maple sugar candies, and then we headed to the airport.

What was that all about? I asked my father that night. Oh, he's not so bad, was the reply, and he's had a lousy time. I just wanted him to have something positive he might remember out of all this.

I don't know whether Talcott ever came back to call, but he might have. My father would occasionally confess that some of his visitors were kids he hadn't had much hope for--so shallow or so incurious or so mean or so untrustworthy. Those visits were reminders that he's been wrong, and the joy of seeing those characters redeemed, happy and successful, gave him real joy, as if the real redemption in each case was his.

So I've grown comfortable being wrong. All the silliness I observe in kids, the behaviors that sometimes require intervention and occasionally generate my inner disapproval, is just part of their growing up, their time to make mistakes both excellent and idiotic, their time to try out new personas and new perspectives. Of course we sometimes cringe; making us do this is practically part of their job.

So commencement is a festival of memories, of impressions corrected. I remember when I wondered what would become of them, when I despaired of some. It's astonishing, isn't it, what these kids have become, what they've accomplished and where they're going?

But there they are, proud and successful, high school graduates all. Every one of them is a story, and I realize that I don't even know, have maybe never really known, even the half of it, even if I might have had such-and-such a kid "all figured out" at some point. Their secrets and their dreams are theirs to keep, my worries and judgments mine to let go of.

Sometimes old students come back to see me, the old stars and the young reprobates, and like my father, I love them all. Sometimes they remind even me that I was wrong about them, and I'm grateful for the lesson, as happy as ever my father was.

There's nothing like being pleasantly surprised, now, is there?

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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