A few days ago, I received an email from one of my students. The email started with the following statement: the final exams had now been graded and, consequently, she could allow herself to write me an email.
She wrote to say ❤ Thank You ❤. She wrote to say she has spent three wonderful years in College and she has me to thank for it. She wrote that I was both exemplary and cool, both a good and humane teacher. That I was witty and humorous. That she has always kept memorable teachers in her heart, and that I am one of them.
Now and then I receive this kind of emails. Shall I even admit that I save them all in a text file so that they survive each generation of email address I’ll have in my lifetime?
It’s a hard life being your students’ super-hero. You always have to be ready to fly at the first cry of despair from the darkest corners of the amphitheater during the darkest hours of exam week. You always have to be ready to produce a mock exam whenever you feel your group is sinking in the swamps of anguish. You always have to be ready to brilliantly answer a tricky question and wittily dismiss a cheeky question.
You always have to be ready for a speech when a tracheitis has left you voiceless. You always have to be on time, even when your train has been stuck in snow and your tramway has run into an ill-parked car.
You always have to be ready to rejoice when one of them tells you they were accepted in that shiny foreign university for a year of exchange; you always have to be ready to pour a cup of tea when one of them starts crying.
You always have to be efficient and smiling and patient, even when a friend of yours died the day before. Even when you had a bad day. Because, friends of them die too. They also have bad days (parents fight, relatives harass, grades sink, doctors deliver diagnostics, future jobs remain uncertain and frightening prospects). In that dark, dark world, you are the adult (it’s not about age; it’s about status). You are the one that the institution has put in charge. You are the one who says everything’s gonna be alright. You are the one who knows. You are the one with the poker face.
You are the super-hero.
If only they knew.
The edifice crumbling down behind the poker facade. The wrinkles on my brow that I did not have when I started. The will to do something else with my life. The reasons behind my leave of absence.
They think their super-hero just got bored of her 60-hours-a-week daunting tasks. They think she needed an extra challenge, an adventure in the coldest parts of a wild country where she would speak in tongues. They think she craved a little workout for those muscles that got tired of lifting piles of exams.
They don’t know that I lacked courage. That I eloped. That this leave of absence is in fact a cowardly escape in front of uncertainty. It is a begging for some extra time.
They don’t know that I am tired of being their super-hero. That I am tired of dedicating my life to academia. That all I want to do is stand in a snow field, open my arms wide and fill my lungs with wild air. That I want to write a new chapter of my life, invent every new line of it. That my job, as opposed to many less lucky jobs, allowed me to elope and that I took, blissfully, advantage of this.
That I came to despise a lot of aspects of my job and that I, their super-hero, only kept teaching because of them.
They don’t know about the sulking work-a-holics, the pompous elders, the pointless competitions. The self-consciousness of the working hours spent outside the classroom: filling perfunctory forms to ask money for hastily-written projects, and all this to respond to a demand for more perfunctory forms and hastily-written projects in exchange of money.
They don’t know that I have betrayed them, and that the feeling of guilt has taken over: I am enthusiastically training them for a job for which I am not an enthusiast anymore.
While I was writing this confession, another student wrote. She said they’d miss me this semester.
I guess that the whole point of this confession is to say that I miss them too. That they have kept me going. That maybe, just maybe, although I refuse to admit it, I took this leave of absence to be able to come back and keep on teaching. Maybe they are my snow field.
And if eventually I don’t come back, if I finally decide to stop committing and write that new chapter of my life, well, they’ll still remember me.
For I am their super-hero.
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