She wasn’t one of my students
I generally teach the ‘bilingual’* half of the school and so we hadn’t met before. She tried speaking to me in Spanish, and I explained, in slow English, that I don’t speak Spanish. This is now a lie. I just don’t speak Spanish at school.
She nodded. She didn’t really speak English and yet, for whatever reason, she had decided that she needed to tell me that she was feeling nervous. The funny thing was that I was nervous too. I often feel nervous before standing up and speaking.
With the aid of some creative gestures and the assistance of another student we managed to communicate a little. But soon we were ushered towards the front of the hall, the seats were filling up and so we found ourself a place at the front facing our audience. I was given a seat, and the nervous girl and the student of mine who had asked me to partake in the event stood behind me. Both were visibly nervous.
In this short article I’m going to write about fear.
The group of students smelt of fear
This isn’t a smell I used to notice. I mean, I guess my body noticed, but cognitively I didn’t. They smelt something like the queue at airport security, but freshly so. Annoyingly my body was syncing up with theirs. Before entering the hall I hadn’t particularly been bothered about reading a poem. In fact I jokingly offered to do it in Spanish if my student read theirs in English.
However the tension of the students around me started getting to me. I smiled at them, told them to breathe deep. I took some deep breaths myself, sitting abnormally rigid in my seat, trying to pay attention to my fascinating body.
The poetry reading began
A microphone was handed to the first boy and he began his reading. After he finished I turned to the student who had asked me to read a poem in English for them and told her that I didn’t want to use the microphone. She gave me the look that said ‘it seems we’re using the microphone’.
I didn’t want to use the microphone.
The nervous girl was shaking. The microphone was passed to the next reader.
I contemplated the microphone
I didn’t like it. I didn’t want it. I didn’t trust it. Student after student lifted it to their mouths and spoke softly into it.
Then came the announcement that a poem would be read in English and Spanish. The student’s class and full name was read, and then my name, simply Catherine.
I took the microphone with a smile
As a rule I try to do all such things with a smile. Then I stepped into the centre of the stage and looked up at the students who were amassed in front of me. I knew the names of many of the faces. Every chair was taken and there was a gathering of teachers huddled at the back. I smiled at the students, gave a quick, but visible, playful frown at the microphone and held it out at a distance so it would be sure to not pick up my voice. Then I read the poem.
Slowly. Annunciating each word and throwing the sounds out to the very back of the hall, interrupting the whispered hisses of the teaching staff. The students listened. It wasn’t a beautiful reading, but it was purposeful. It commanded silence and it got it. When I looked up at the children, seated in their rows, I was surprised to see that they were grinning back. Rows and rows of them. I was so stunned they were paying attention I nearly forgot the last line.
When I took my seat, to a round of applause, my student who was reading the Spanish translation read her part. It was her second reading, but this was twice as loud as the first.
My work however was not yet complete
The nervous girl touched my shoulder and I turned to her amid the clapping.
“Look,” I said. And I held out my hand.
It was shaking
She stared at me amazed and I smiled at her. Her eyes widened with the sudden recognition of what I was trying to show her.
And then she took to the stage and gave the best reading of us all.
At this point, having told my story, I want to bring your attention to three specific factors:
1) I have an informal relationship with my students
2) This means I can be vulnerable around them
3) I’m teaching them how to overcome fear by demonstrating it myself
I wear jeans and a t-shirt for school
The children call me by my first name. Apart from the teacher who introduced the speakers, I was the only adult involved. I sat with the students and before and after the reading it was with the students that I chatted.
Generally the students know more about me than any of their other teachers, because rather than standing at the front of the class and giving instructions which they are then expected to follow, I engage them in a two way conversation.
One of the exam questions is, “Would you like to have a small or large family in the future?”
I’m expected to ask this personal question to a class of sixteen-year-olds, and they have no option but answer. Lying in a foreign language you don’t speak very well is surprisingly difficult. It’s a double translation. I regularly give them permission to lie to me, but I also try to respect that I have to earn the truth.
So while I ask questions, I also give example answers talking about myself. This is how I know the girls who write fan-fiction and the boy who plays in chess tournaments at the weekends, and they know I paint and write and take photos.
And that unlike my ancestors I’m not going to be having fourteen children. I’m already much too old.
I’m willing to show the children that I haven’t got everything in my life straightened out
Sometimes I ask students about their plans for the future, and they admit to worrying because they’re not certain. So I share that although I’m twice their age, I feel the same. I’m not certain where I’ll be a year from now, let alone five years from now, certainly not for the rest of my life.
When I showed the nervous girl my shaking hand I was telling her that she was not alone. Nerves are not something you necessarily grow out of, but you can change how you think about them. Many of these children have significant anxiety issues. They don’t have the skills to handle the constant internal fear they are generating.
So often we view our bodies as betraying us, letting us down
It’s easy to get angry at a shaking hand. Yes, my voice trembles sometimes. Sometimes my heartbeat is so forceful in my chest that I think other people must be able to see my rib cage reverberating. When I’m stood at the front of the class I have to take off a few layers because my body is wound up hot.
I used to see these behaviours of my body as a tremendous weakness
My body would overreact to ridiculous things. When my body would slam into panic attack mode I wasn’t exactly grateful. But then I recall that how my body has used these troublesome reactions to protect me, and I am grateful.
When I felt my hand shaking I didn’t see it as something that was going to stop me reading the poem I’d been asked to read. I saw it as a curiosity. I had a commitment to my students to fulfill but when I felt my shaking hand and I realised that this visible quiver could be an incredible teaching tool.
Without needing words, I said I see your fear, I know your fear, and I have faith in your ability to do stand up there and read your poem like it was written to be read.
And without needing words, the student simply said, I see your fear, and I believe you.
Which makes my informal, gentle approach, where I’m willing to open up a little and be realistic about my own uncertainty, worthwhile.
Which brings me to a final question
Why is such a simple approach remarkable?
I invite you to now read the poem I read by Rupi Kaur chosen by my students:
*The children are separated into bilingual and non-bilingual classes, based on a mixture of how good their grades are and how demanding their parents are willing to be. They all study English, but the bilingual students study an additional subject in English as well.