Recently, a student came up to me before class. It was Daniel, the student I made cry last month by encouraging him to externally process his feelings. “Do you need something?” I asked him with a frown, distracted as I usually am during break time.
Grinning goofily, he reached across me to grab one of my board markers, a black marker with a red cap. He held the marker in front of my face, confronting me with its mismatchedness.
So he didn’t need anything. He was just fooling around.
My gut instinct was to dismiss him with a forced smile, but with our recent encounter in mind, I decided to engage. “I lost the cap!” I protested, half-heartedly trying to grab it from him.
He uncapped it and wrote on the board “ㅎㅎ” (“haha” in Korean).
We exchanged a look, and suddenly I felt like I was back in third grade. Why was he over here right now? He could be playing phone games, chatting with his buddies, or doing any number of other things. Did he actually like me..?
I realized that I had grown accustomed to both treating him like an enemy and being treated like one. I’d been on guard with him, always assuming the worst and always having the worst assumed of me.
But something had changed.
I think that’s why I felt slightly fluttery inside. It was this moment of treading on unfamiliar ground. We were actually exchanging something like affection.
Since the confrontation last month in which I pushed Daniel to express his emotions and ended up telling him I liked him (but didn’t like when he wasn’t nice), there have been plenty of moments he could easily have been offended by me. Times of rebuking him. Times of overlooking him. (The worst being the day I unintentionally skipped over him during daily “how are you?” time, then shut down the kid who tried to inform me of that fact, assuming the kid was being disruptive.)
But while he used to be on the defensive with me, prone to take everything I did personally, now he isn’t. That one conversation was powerful enough to tear down the barriers between us. I think it’s because I gave him two things he has rarely, if ever, been given: space to express his negative emotions and verbal affirmation.
As a teacher, yelling and rebuking are always easier for me than affirming or listening. The kids all understand yelling, language barrier or not. Korean culture dictates that they must obey my commanding tone, no questions asked. So it’s much easier to take that route. Command now, explain never.
But commands never changed anyone. It is love that transforms.
And there is tough love, yes. (Otherwise known as discipline and setting limits.) But love most often involves a lot of listening, empathy, patience, and affirmation.
Looking at Daniel, a kid who has undoubtedly been commanded an endless stream of mandates his whole life, a kid who tries so hard and is so afraid of making mistakes, a kid who puts up a confident, carefree facade and doesn’t know how to let people in, a kid who now feels comfortable teasing me as if we are friends, I feel inspired to choose love.
Love that listens. Love that invests time. Love that calls out the best in someone and makes it a reality.