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It’s by no accident that I chose to teach the eighth grade, for it is at this level where students can become most affected by those entrusted to educate them. The delicate transition between childhood and young adult, these young minds are oftentimes set on the path to their future during this last year of true innocence. The high school years that are to come will cement what has been instilled, the college years for those who go on towards it putting the finishing shine to the beautiful and colorful patterns of the wings I have placed on these students during their time of metamorphosis.
The patterns can be as diverse as the students themselves, but the type can be found under one of three categories, usually separated within that first month of the new school year.
Just about all of them come to class on that first day with a good attitude toward learning, all starting off equal in my teacher’s log, the next day all turning in their assigned essay on what they did during the summer. Of course within this first lesson one can begin to identify the different levels of academic strength among them all, but it is by the end of this first week, no later than the beginning of the second when true colors begin to show, no longer able to hide what kind of student they have been up to this point and therefore how they are likely to continue.
Usually under one of three categories; The largest group always comes in the form of average. Those who are in my class to get a decent grade and then move on to an average future. Next there are the trouble makers, the slackers, the straight-up wierdos, putting forth minimal effort, whatever will get them a passing D, and sometimes not even that. Then you have the smallest group among the three. Those who strive to be perfectionists in their obsessive pursuit of getting into a top university, almost always behind such ambition the parents who have conditioned such compulsion. Actually, all three groups come from this conditioning background, but it is most predominant with the overachievers.
There is a forth category, but it is so rare that an educator will most likely only come across this extraordinary phenomenon once in their whole career. A golden gem of a student, or as my oldest of colleagues calls them, a pupil of the soul. One who pays attention like no other. With an eagerness to learn, to know, they are simply there to be in the moment of enlightenment, their eyes blossoming with every question they have answered.
Entering my second decade as a teacher I was beginning to think such talk was myth, not only having yet to come across this type of exceptional mind, but knowing of no one else from my generation of educators who had come upon it in their own classrooms.
But then I met Elise.
At first I had mistaken her for one of the overachievers, choosing the desk directly opposite mine in the front row, setting atop it a battle station from day one; pencil, paper, eraser, electronic dictionary, with an array of more scholarly tools right beside them in their backpacks. But then I noticed two things that set her apart. One, she didn’t act like an android. The overachievers all move, talk, process the same, as a result of being programmed by their parents. Elise was different. When receiving an answer she didn’t immediately go for that pencil to write it down, instead taking the time to understand it, to absorb it right then and there. And this leads me to her eyes. I‘ve never met anyone who serves as a more perfect example for the phrase, The Eyes are the Windows to the Soul. Her curiosity, her intrigue, her moments of understanding, all projected through those bright brown eyes.
Teachers can’t help but have favorites. Of course one tries to remain impartial while in the classroom, giving everyone far opportunity and the like. But certain teachers just click with certain students, and vice versa. With Elise it was more than a click, it was a perfect fit. A harmonious balance between give and receive, her treasure to me– her undivided attention and insatiable appetite for discovery, while my gift to her was the sweet fruit of knowledge.
Her front row desk opposite mine was were my eyes, my energy, my heart was now drawn to. The throne to where my prodigy princess sat, my lessons like performances to enchant, enrich, enthrall.
Yes, I tried to remain impartial, but imagine if you will having someone like an Einstein or de Vinci in your class. As children their genius may not have been so obvious, but for someone who knows what they will later become, to behold such a special person at such an early stage? This is how remarkable I felt Elise was. Indeed, greatness in the making.
So was it then not my duty to veer away from the syllabus and craft lessons that would benefit her? All others would gain as well, for education is what they are all here to acquire, but they were mere wallflowers to the gorgeous stargazer I now had growing in my garden, and so I nurtured, and so she and I blossomed.
By far the best school year of my life my only fear was the inevitable fact that it would all end come June. I couldn’t stand the thought of it, going back to the mundane days of being unappreciated and used, a simple stepping stone, no, make that a pebble, to be all but forgotten as the eighth grade student body launched off of me only to give their best to a later instructor at a later time.
I wasn’t ready to let her go.
Parent-teacher conferences were once again coming up, the first go round of them earlier in the year having me both eager and curious to meet the two people who had raised by little prodigy. I had been quite surprised by the couple, getting the sense that they were neither android programmers nor of the average Joe and Jane class. A kind of simple humble aura seemed to emanate from them, making it more of a mystery as to where Elise’s wondrous nature had come from.
For this second meeting I would again remind the parents what an exceptional child they had, while this time suggesting something that could very well be taken the wrong way. With summer coming up, a long three months with that beautiful mind not absorbing all that she could would in my eyes be a tragedy, so I offered to be her private tutor, at no charge. I know, nowadays such a gesture would likely be looked upon through cynical eyes, with thoughts of sinister acts entering one’s mind. A middle-aged male teacher like myself asking for one-on-one time with a girl who is just starting her adolescent stage of life? I’d probably be branded a Lolita-obsessed type, and might even lose my job. But to think of the alternative, of losing the very one that had reinvigorated my life’s work? I had to ask.
Unfortunately, Elise’s parents reacted from the perspective I dreaded. They didn’t come right out and voice their misconstrued misgivings, but their feelings were apparent, simply responding with a “Thank you for the offer, but…”
And so I spent the summer in mourning, refusing to teach any summer classes, for how could I look over at that front row throne once inhabited by the great Elise and continue on? Instead losing myself the only way I could, in books.
By September it was time to place the tie back around my neck. My twelfth issuing of ‘What I Did Over Summer Vacation’, and probably my last. I was sick of the overachievers, wanting to spray them all down with water and therefore blow their circuit boards. Tired of the average, wishing I could slap some sense into them and say, “take the red pill, escape the Matrix, wake the fuck up!” And as for the losers, I was one twitch away from grabbing them by the back of the neck and using the sole of my shoe to give ‘em a swift kick in the ass out of my classroom and on their way to their destined destination of jail and/or the welfare line.
But just as all seemed lost, she returned to my life.
With the first week of October comes the tedious work of school progress reports, but this year such a report would end up becoming a lifesaver, for such an assessment woke Elise’s parents from their state of ignorance. It was the first time their child had ever received negative remarks, with comments such as ‘doesn’t stay focused’ and ‘her performance is perplexing. At times she displays a strong aptitude toward learning, while other instances clearly show she’s struggling’.
They reached out enlightening me on the fact that Elise had had a less than stellar summer, their daughter no longer having the zest and zeal they had always known her to possess, and with the start of her freshman year her decline only becoming more dramatic. They were also honest and humble in their message, admitting that Elise had expressed on several occasions that she missed learning from me, and that they had made an error in judgment when declining my offer. The parents ended the email with words I imagined were accompanied by tears in their eyes…
‘Our daughter is our everything, and while under your guidance her glow had become so radiant. You are the only one who saw her full potential, and we sincerely apologize for having been blind to this blessing in our lives. If you can find it in your heart to forgive us and reinstate your offer to be Elise’s tutor, we would forever be in your debt.’
My response was simple, yet reflected everything I felt inside.
‘It would be my honor.’
Our reunion was like that of two soul mates finding one another. We were in fact soul mates, our special bond taking the form of expanding the mind and therefore the heart as well. She ran into my arms and we hugged, both of us getting a little teary-eyed after having been intentionally kept apart.
With our reconnection came an immediate change in Elise’s grades, once again taking her rightful place atop the honor roll while simultaneously reigniting my passion for teaching. For the kids who were part of my ‘day’ job I was a captain sailing full steam ahead on the grand Elise’s Eyes. For any who wanted to join us on board they were welcome, but it was clear who was steaming this voyage, my precious Pupil of the Soul.
Yeah, I finally got what my old colleague meant by pupil of the soul. Pupil of my soul. One special student out of thousands who aligns with what I have to offer like stars aligning to bring about something miraculous. Like a conductor who finds his perfect orchestra, an artist who has come upon the most spectacular of scenes and becomes one with it through her brush, canvas and array of colors.
And soar to breath-taking heights we did, Elise finishing her secondary education as valedictorian before going on to earn her bachelor’s degree. We then both went for our master’s, the ultimate of study buddies and lifelong friends.
I’m now at the age of retirement, a head full of white hair showing the world that I’ve been walking it for quite some time now, the smile on my face and contentment across the windows of my soul shining with the radiance of someone who had had the pleasure and honor of guiding greatness, as she has went on to become one of the most important minds of our time.
These ol’ eyes of mine are at their most brilliant when I think back on that long ago day of first getting to know Elise, and how she had turned that front row seat opposite mine into a royal throne with her magnificence.
Indeed, a pupil of the soul is a teacher’s crowning achievement.