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The contradictions of the classroom

My second grade teacher quietly passed away two weeks ago. He had taken a personal health leave from my elementary school, where he inspired and nurtured first and second graders for the last 30 years. He had long battled depression, and apparently chose to end that battle. But as a student of his long ago, I would never have guessed he was unhappy. He always smiled in the classroom.

As students, specifically seven-year-olds, our teachers exist for us within the confines of the classroom. They spring into being with cheery smiles and a bounce in their step as we stow lunch boxes and head to morning meeting. They retreat again at 3 o’clock with the lines of carpooling parents and yellow school buses.

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My teacher Jim was always summed up simply — a sketch by a seven-year-old mind. He was tall but not imposing and grew a bushy beard. He always smiled. He favored flannel and wore Birkenstocks no matter the weather.

I have recently discovered these contradictions of the classroom as I have returned to school, this time as a teacher myself. While students might fail to conceive of teachers outside the classroom, I now know that for us teachers — our students are never far from our thoughts. My students do not cease to exist with the school bell, rather they continue to run wild in my thoughts late into the night as I agonize over the girl who struggles with a math concept or the boy who can’t sit still for five minutes straight.

In the classroom teachers are the sounding boards and documentarians for our students’ lives — we hear about the birthday party plans, the antics of a younger sibling and last night’s fried chicken. We hang up our lives, our worries and our concerns and cloak ourselves with those of our students.

At seven, I was just the same. On a recent foray to the basement, I unearthed a cardboard box filled with relics of second grade. Jim had us write every day. I have uncovered 15manila journals filled with elaborate and atrociously spelled stories detailing trips to relatives, to friends’ houses, describing home cooked meals and depicting colorful baseball caps we once bought on vacation.

We all were eager to share our everydays — just as my students are now.

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And Jim always listened — listened with such intensity that each of us came away feeling that our stories and our lives were remarkable. When my youngest brother was born in November, I brought him in at three weeks old for show and tell. When Passover came in April, Jim was invited to our Seder.

Teaching made me appreciate the duality of a teacher’s life. My own teacher’s death made me realize how I saw my own teachers the same way.

Looking back I am ashamed to realize that I knew very little about Jim.

The only thing I do know definitively was that Jim loved nearby Punkatasset Pond. Year after year, every first and second grade class spent an afternoon at the pond, poking at the water’s edge and exploring the surrounding trails. I remember building tree forts out of sticks and catching tadpoles in mesh nets.

Even years later when I returned to the school to visit my favorite teachers, my conversations with Jim continued to center around me – what classes I was taking, what art or what writing I was engaged in. For me Jim, as well as all of my teachers, continued to exist within the confines of school.

My second grade teacher was not a famous person; his obituary will likely be modest. But I think it is worth pausing to consider the devotion of great teachers. Almost everyone has had at least one – men and women who listened to you, supported you and made you feel special. Like great parents, great teachers have a herculean ability to maintain two completely separate lives – successfully hiding personal struggles in order to show only warmth and support for the students they teach. Theirs is a selfless commitment to the lives of others.

Jim was one such teacher — always there to listen, with complete and absolute focus, to the adventures of a seven-year old, always there with a smile, and always wearing Birkenstocks — no matter the weather.

Jessica Lander is a teacher and writer. She has taught in Chiang Mai and Charlestown. She writes an education blog and contributes to the Boston Globe Magazine.

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