79: Seeing Us

79: Seeing Us

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Seeing Us

You can observe a lot by just watching.

~Yogi Berra

Sometimes, I ask my students what they see. My senior creative-writing students, especially, have fun with this exercise. I teach them that a writer is a person on whom nothing is lost (thank you, Henry James) and then assign an exercise in which they must describe one of their teachers in detail as though he or she were a character on the page. Their peers then guess the teacher. I learn a lot about my colleagues through this exercise. About myself even.

This year, after my students had shared their work aloud and guessed the name of each other’s subjects, my student Niko said, “I wanted to write about you, Ms. Flaherty.”

I chuckled. “You could’ve.”

“Really?” he asked, his face — and several faces in the class — suddenly alight with refreshed interest.

“Yeah, it’s okay,” I said. “We all have our things, and there’s no judgment in that. You look at me every day. Tell me what details make my character.”

A beat passed. Then Natalie raised her hand. “You sit like that all the time.”

I looked down. I was seated in my office chair at the front of the room. One leg was tucked under me, and the other was crossed over the tucked knee.

“Ugh! I was gonna say that,” Niko said from the back.

Rachael raised her hand. “You change your shoes according to your mood. I’ve, like, seen you go behind your desk and change them during class.”

I nodded. True. Sometimes I tired of high heels and changed to flats while no one was looking — or so I thought.

“No, but it isn’t just that,” Natalie said. “You, like — your outfits are always coordinated. Everything goes together in, like, a specific way.”

Rachael nodded.

They were just warming up.

“But it seems like your outfits reflect your mood for the day,” Natalie continued. “It’s like you wake up and say, ‘Today, I feel sassy,’ and then dress to fit that.”

As she said that, I was wearing a black skirt with a cropped jean jacket and my tall black boots that looked more rugged than formal. Silver bangles clanked at my left wrist, and a honking garnet ring popped from my right knuckle. My hair was pulled back into an extended ponytail that definitely had some Mohawk DNA to it. I laughed. Sassy, huh?

Devin popped up in his seat. “No offense, but you’re very…” He paused as he searched for the right phrase. “…hard on us. You expect a lot. Which is good. And we all know that you’re doing it because you want us to be better. And we are better.”

“Aw…” Seriously, awww.

“But you’re mean, too,” a boy named Tom countered.

Natalie championed me with, “Nuh-uh,” but I hadn’t felt offended.

“How so?” I asked Tom.

“I don’t know. You’re, like, mean to us.”

“No, Tom.” I shook my head. “I’m mean to you.”

He spread his hands. “See?”

The class smiled. They had witnessed our repartee before.

“But I do that with you on purpose,” I said. “You like to be teased. You like sarcasm. It’s like affection for you.” Tom’s face showed that he conceded the point. “Now, if I did that to her — ” I gestured across the room to Kelly, a student I knew to be sensitive. “ — I would make her cry.”

“That’s just it,” Natalie jumped in. “You read us. You know the second we stop paying attention. I don’t even know that I’ve zoned out, but you’re already telling me to come back. You, like, know us.”

I shrugged. “A teacher’s trick.”

She shook her head. “I don’t know. You see it, like, way more and way faster than other teachers.”

“And you do this thing when you lose your train of thought,” Erin, a girl near the front, started. She lifted her hand and acted it out as she explained in a softening voice, “You touch your hair while you try to remember.”

“I do?” I thought back. “Yeah, I do. See, Natalie? You all know me, too.”

“You never noticed that before?” Erin said.

“No. Points for originality, Erin. You’re definitely paying attention.” I re-directed to serve the characterization lesson. “What about other things? What kinds of things do I say?”

“Oh,” Rachael made her goofball face. “I got this. You say ‘good chat’ at the end of things. It isn’t always even a conversation. It’s just how you end one thing and move to the next.”

It was also my response to student non sequiturs.

“Or you, like, drum your fingers,” she added.

That was a new observation, too.

“Your voice changes when you read your own writing to us,” Natalie added. “Your voice gets — I don’t know — more expressive or something.”

It made sense. I am most familiar and connected with my own pieces, after all.

“Those were strong observations. You were detailed. Nice work,” I said. Some faces said they weren’t done teaching me about myself, but it was time to wrap up the lesson. “Keep those sorts of things in mind when you’re creating characters. How do they sit? Do they have go-to phrases particular to them? How do they dress, and how does that reflect who they are?”

They nodded, taking it in, but the fun of the exercise had yet to leave their bodies. They were still alert, maybe wondering if I was going to let them go at it again, but the bell rang and their daily, reluctant shift to packing up began. I stayed in my chair, wishing them good days and fist-bumping Devin as he passed to the door.

Overall, I like that exercise. The kids overflow with excitement as they try to guess each other’s teacher pick, and it’s great for character work. But it also serves to bond the class, which is particularly important in a writing class. I ask my students to be vulnerable when I ask them to share their writing with each other. Something that they created is being thrust forward for criticism, so they have to build that trust. They have to build an Us.

Once, a former creative-writing class challenged me to describe them. They really seemed to think they had stumped me. Didn’t they know by now that I was a writer? Nothing was lost on me.

“Sure,” I agreed. “But let’s keep it focused on one thing since there are so many of you. Say, how you move when you read aloud in class.” They agreed.

“Okay.” I started on one side of the room and moved across. “Danielle always thrusts her notebook onto her knees before she reads aloud.” Surprise. Gasps.

“Zach always scoots forward to the edge of his seat as he reads. Brittany fidgets with her fingers and rings.” Accuracy. Gasps.

“Bobby pulls at his chin when he’s concentrating. Sierra flips her hair to one side and over her shoulder.” Wonder. Gasps.

“Should I go on?”

“How do you even see all that?” Bobby asked.

I answered what all teachers know: “I see my students. Every day, I see my students.”

~Margaret M. Flaherty

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