Every term I meet approximately a hundred new students. As their teacher, I get to hear a lot of stories. I hear stories about colds and gastro bugs, crashed computers, late metros, grandma’s birthday parties, all night Nowroz celebrations, and family vacations in the middle of term. I haven’t yet heard about a dog eating homework but I don’t doubt that one day I will. But I also hear other things about their lives. As I’m getting materials ready in the minutes before class, I hear students talking about the night before at the club. I hear them gossip about their friends. I hear them re-enact the battles they wage with their parents. I see, as the term progresses, new relationships being born. Sometimes, I see relationships coming to an end and two students who once sat together and gazed at each other all class, now sit across the room, trying desperately not to move their eyes in his or her direction. They talk to me about their weekend plans and about what they should do after college. They ask me what dating was like before cell phones. They try to figure out what it’s like to be a thirty-something woman — “when do you get to have fun?” I’ve had more than one student ask.
Not only do I see them in the classroom, though. I often see them in the halls and I think they are a little pleased when I remember their names, even semesters after they’ve been in my class. In a school of 10,000 students, they like being seen and being known. And a good number of them make their way to my office over the course of a semester. Sometimes just to hand in an assignment, sometimes to ask for help with the correlation coefficient or with their paper on the history of eugenics. Often times to ask for an extension. Sometimes they find their way down the long hall to my office just because they want to talk. And the stories that they share in that space repeatedly make me stand back in awe. A young woman nursed her mother, her only living relative, to death last semester. She asked for an extension only in the days surrounding the funeral. Another student flew back and forth to Honduras in about 48 hours to say good-bye to a dying father he’d never known. Another explained what it was like to be chased through another country by her father who was abusive and angry and that great day when she and her mother finally got a visa to come to Canada. Students struggle with their parents’ separations and divorces. They themselves are in abusive relationships. They are struggling to come out to their parents. They have breakdowns and end up in health care institutions. They have cancer, leukemia, HIV and Hepatitis. They get pregnant, have abortions, give birth to babies they will raise as they stay the course and finish their DEC’s. They are brave and determined. And in those places they tell incredible stories of over-coming the odds. The students who are the first in their families to go beyond high school. Those who are called up to professional hockey teams. Those who are celebrating recovery from addiction. Those who are mapping out a more sustainable future for the school, the nation, the world. Those who see the future as limitless.
Of the hundreds of students I’ve taught, I’ve been privy to only a small percentage of their stories. But those stories help remind me that every single one of them has a story that can break your heart. (A. Marshall)