“You should have asked me!” he shouted, then sat with his bear, blinking back tears.
I handed him tissues, resisting the impulse to defend myself. It seemed everyone had been yelling at me all day, blaming me for things I couldn’t help. It occurred to me T probably felt the same. I could not think of an appropriate way to communicate this, though I stood by his desk for a minute, trying. That day, for a moment, we were on the same side. He dabbed his eyes and said haughtily, “Thank you for the Kleenex.”
I said you’re welcome and meant it. Ultimately, my rejection of the single story expected of me by these storylines—why can’t you just turn T into a scholar?!—helped me understand my complicity in the single story told about him. If I hated the story told about “inner-city teachers,” surely T hated the story told about “inner-city students.” There it was, briefly—empathy’s slippery tail.
The simplified story offers comfort and complacency. It requires no revision, no changing the narrative to accommodate new information. Middle-class teachers don’t have to think too much about power or privilege or how they participate in a system that by and large serves their interests. Practicing compassion, on the other hand, means holding multiple, often contradictory stories in mind. It is a process of continual revision. I am a better teacher when I remember how much I do not know about my students.
Real-life teachers may chafe against the popular narratives, but they tell plenty of stories. Through these stories, teachers recast their ideas about their students and the job itself. Before having children, I spent Friday afternoons in an Irish pub with my colleagues. The first beer drew out the horror stories, about fights, or a class’s response to the boy who wore high heels and a trench coat. Some teachers left after these stories.
The second-beer stories complicated our ideas about our students, who were sometimes maddening but also earnest and fragile and human. These stories all followed the same trajectory, the opener something like: Well, she lives with her grandparents. Both on heroin. Or: This kid, you’d never know it, has a 2-year-old. The story’s crescendo might be a vulnerable detail revealed in the student’s writing, or sometimes a moment of connection, like the time my mentor-teacher and I, at lunch, asked a drug dealer to tell us about his life. Before long, tears dripped onto his Styrofoam tray and he said, “I don’t know why I’m like this.” His attitude toward school seemed less a function of personal choices than a result of the life he had been born into. After that day, he called us Mama 1 and Mama 2—but we never claimed we saved him.
Pity means I tell students who I think they are; empathy means I ask them, again and again, to tell me who they are. Such a shift resets a power imbalance. Classrooms where teachers and students actively work against the narratives and misconceptions that batter them are places where real learning happens. When teachers revise their ideas of who students are, they also revise their ideas of who they, as teachers, can be. Adichie observes that subscribing only to “a single story” makes it hard to recognize “our equal humanity.” The challenge of holding this equal humanity in mind despite the power structures of the classroom is both the test for teachers and the prize. T didn’t teach me how to do this—that has come later, in fits and starts—but he taught me that I should.