47: The Twenty-Minute Lesson

47: The Twenty-Minute Lesson

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

The Twenty-Minute Lesson

To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.

~Criss Jami

I woke with a racing heart and fluttering stomach. Today would be my first parent-teacher conference. Like everything else that first year of teaching, I expected I’d learn a lot. What I didn’t expect was that a twenty-minute conference would change me forever.

Akif was a happy, good-natured boy. His thick, black glasses only magnified his smiling eyes. He was a bit immature — as middle-school boys often are — but he was kind to his classmates and he didn’t misbehave. His homework, however, was chronically late. He struggled to keep pace with the class, even when he assured me he understood the assignments. I gave him effort grades when I could, but the problem was getting worse. By November, despite messages left on the home answering machine, it was time to meet the parents.

At my middle school, we collaborate for conferences. Akif’s work was incomplete in most subjects, so other teachers joined the meeting. I was grateful I wouldn’t be alone. My colleagues could show me how they resolved issues with parents. I needed to learn, and I really wanted Akif to succeed.

Akif’s father entered the classroom uncertainly. His blue acrylic sweater, oversized and misshapen, hung on his thin frame. The old Mobil gas station logo — with the flying red horse — covered his left chest. I realized he carried no coat on this cold November morning. Yet despite his disheveled clothes, his graying beard was neatly groomed and his hair was covered with a white crocheted cloth. Its intricate weave looked handmade. He walked in nervously, quickly sitting in one of the empty desks we’d circled for the conference.

We welcomed him and began introductions when his thin hand went into the air to stop us. In a shaky voice, he asked to speak first. I was surprised, but could sense his anguish.

He poured out his story. Akif was his youngest child. They’d moved from India, and he worked two full-time jobs to support his family. As he spoke, I noticed he wouldn’t make eye contact with us. Then he shook his head ruefully and explained his wife and children also worked. Everyone pitched in however they could. In India, he said, he devoted time to his children. But here, with all of the demands, he hardly saw them. He couldn’t guide and help them anymore. The more he spoke, the more I understood what he was trying to say: He blamed himself for Akif’s struggles.

“All of God’s creations need attention,” he stated. “Whether it is a tree or a deer or a child, they all need the same thing. Nurturing. I have not been able to give Akif what I gave my older children. I can’t give him the attention he deserves. I keep telling him he must ask his teachers for help with his schoolwork. Surely, they will understand. That is their job.”

Then he stopped. His head hung as he covered his face with his hands. He began to weep.

No one in the room moved. I felt suspended in time. I was overcome by his humility and desperation. I knew in that moment, I was in the presence of something far greater than myself. He embodied selfless, unconditional love. His burden overwhelmed him, and he begged for mercy and help from complete strangers.

“I would be forever grateful if you could give Akif help,” he said as tears rolled down his cheeks.

We sat in shocked silence. I forgot all about being a first-year teacher. I prayed for the right words and spoke from my heart, reassuring Akif’s father that we would help his son succeed however we could. For the first time, the man looked directly at me, and I saw his face relax with relief. Then he bowed his head and thanked me deeply.

I know we created an action plan for Akif. I remember lunch periods and before-school sessions. As a teaching team, I am sure we focused on study skills and homework strategies. But I honestly don’t remember details. Akif moved on to high school, and I lost track of him. Yet that parent-teacher meeting changed me in powerful ways — as a teacher, but also as a person and eventually a parent.

Those twenty minutes taught me about selflessness, honesty, and love. I witnessed the powerful sacrifice of a parent, and the burden created when our best isn’t enough. I learned people can surprise me, and not to assume things before I hear someone’s story. And I was taught the beauty of vulnerability and the importance of asking for help.

It was one of the important lessons of my life… all in twenty minutes.

~Katie O’Connell

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