To The Students I Failed

by Patrick Gothman
Image Source / Getty

I’ve been doing a lot of introspection lately. I suppose that’s natural for someone in the midst of big life changes. You look at the past and the decisions you have made and how they have propelled you to where you are. How they have helped or held you back from where you want to go next.

A lot of memories from my time spent teaching in particular keep popping back up in my head. I taught in a Catholic high school for a couple years. How I ended up there is another story. Let it be enough for now to say I did.

Catholic classrooms are a curious place. We get all dressed up in our fancy clothes — ties and plaid skirts, charcoal pants and button down oxfords. This is supposed to symbolize how important and sacred the great act of learning is. Usually only one person in the classroom would believe this at a time, though. And it was not always me.

I taught morality and social justice, but I eventually found the most important things that took place in my classroom were not facts memorized or principles analyzed. They were not testable, or even really provable.

It’s not true what people say — that the most rewarding thing about teaching being when students get it. When they finally understand whatever it is you are supposed to be teaching. That wasn’t it.

They were interactions.

Moments when I stopped being mister teacher and they stopped being student grades and we just became two people listening to each other. It is a very difficult place to get to in a classroom. Teachers teach. Students learn. We can begrudge each other the fact that either party may not being doing a very good job, or celebrate it when one does, but to lay that aside and just honestly listen to the other takes a lot of trust.

It is hard to be sixteen and have a man in a suit controlling everything from your bathroom breaks to the grades that will impact the university you get into, and then genuinely hear what he says. It is also hard to listen when you are twenty-four or twenty-five and you earn your living by how well you can get teens to do on tests. Oh, and that test you are going to be working late into the night grading, about a quarter of them are going to try to cheat on it. Yeah, it’s a tough place to try and listen to each other.

But boy, when it happens is it miraculous.

I remember the time a girl argued with me for a whole class period about sex before marriage. She completely scuttled my lesson for the day and was argumentative and, honestly, rude the whole time. I did my best to stay calm, and not let a conversation turn into a debate with a winner and a loser. To keep telling myself to stop tallying points in my head. It wasn’t until after school that she stopped by my classroom and told me she didn’t actually believe any of that, but her best friend in the classroom did and she wanted her to hear my responses. When the friend saw me respond with patience and understanding, she was willing to talk for the first time about it. To listen.

I remember the time a student who hated me when I first started teaching ended up getting an award for best student in my class. How shocked she was when she found out I gave it to her and the conversation we had about how much she learned to like my class. She didn’t like God or the church very much, but she learned to trust me enough to tell me all she had been through before turning seventeen. I don’t think I would feel any differently if I had been through all that. She passed away shortly after graduating, but I’m grateful in the end we liked each other.

I remember the time a couple students politely disagreed with me in the middle of a lecture and calmly explained to me the ad hominem fallacy I was using in my lesson on gay marriage. It may not have changed Catholic Church teaching on the matter, but it certainly changed our discussion. Then I remember the time a boy came up to me later in the year and privately told me was gay and how much that lecture had hurt him. How it had made him so angry he refused to speak in my class for months. And I remember when I apologized and we started listening again.

There are others who weren’t so brave to confront me, though. It is sad that I would have to use a word like brave to describe that. The ones who I never listened to because I was too busy talking. I wonder where they are today. If they have given up talking to people who are supposed to be teachers because they never listened. Because I was too busy explaining the black and white to listen to the real stories that make up the gray.

Once a year a group of youth ministers would come into the school and put on a day-long retreat. I knew them well and they are brilliant at what they do. But they would always say our school was the worst. The students just never listened.

Looking back now I suppose I’m not surprised. If it was so rare that I listened to them, why would they learn to listen to anyone else? I was the teacher with them every single day and I couldn’t even do it.

I have changed a lot since those days right out of college when I would roll up my sleeves and sit on a desk like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and try and pass on everything I knew. I got better at listening. With time, my mind has changed on each of the examples I gave above. In fact, I came out as gay and live, unmarried, with my partner. Life beat against me like the surf on the shore and washed away the ideological edges that kept me trapped.

I learned that the things I know will not always remain that way. Perspectives change. Opinions evolve. And the only way to grow that’s healthy is to share that space openly and honestly. When someone is brave enough to share their side, take it all in, free of judgment.

To the students I didn’t listen to, I am sorry. I wish I could go back and do things differently. I know I was hired to be a teacher, but I was supposed to be more. And I wasn’t often very good at that. It was my job to give the grades, but I was the one who failed you.

I wish you trusted me enough now to reach out again and say you wanted to share your story. It is worth listening to. No uniforms. No lesson plans. No notes. Just honest hearts.