From a young age, the thought of ever becoming a teacher would’ve stirred up horrendous images of torture in my mind. Nothing could have convinced me that engaging students might actually give my own life more meaning. Back then, I’d rebelled against the hopeful, yet unspoken expectations to work hard in my classes, to focus on learning, and to grow into a productive human being. Instead, I withdrew, passively avoiding as well as defying the rules that I found unfair and restrictive, never giving a single hint to anyone about this serious, quite enraged decision. To me, teachers and school as a whole represented nothing more than an atrocious form of control that caused immense misery with no relief in sight. So I couldn’t wait to make my escape as soon as possible and for good.
Now, looking back, I can say that my emotional assessment contained certain distortions. Yet other aspects derived directly from the agony of falling through the cracks in a system designed to classify, to draw quick, largely uninformed conclusions about individual children for the sake of efficiency.
Part of the problem, for me, painfully revolved around the social awkwardness I felt unable to overcome. This distressing incapacity only reinforced my shy demeanor, further solidifying the wretched, inescapable isolation defining each and every day. The first time that I consciously realized my own invisibility occurred while witnessing a classmate’s unmistakable popularity. Her excited, quite friendly reception contrasted in dramatic fashion to the undetectable presence I represented far outside this circle of well-liked, openly favored kids. Sitting at my desk near the middle of the classroom, I noticed how she received exuberant compliments one afternoon due to her recent haircut. After seeing this warm response, I figured that if I also got a trim, similar to her style, the children around me would respond with the same enthusiasm.
However, my hopes were immediately destroyed the moment I walked into that classroom again with my new haircut. Although I initially felt a wonderful rush of self-confidence due to this fresh look, the exhilarating sensation proved temporary. Within seconds, I knew that I’d remain just as imperceptible as before. Nobody said a word to me when I sat down at my desk, demonstrating the delighted response that my classmate had earned obviously reflected personal appeal rather than an updated hairstyle. This realization reinforced the dreadful truth that I had known all along, even though I’d refused to admit it to myself until then. In the most raw, brutal terms, I just didn’t possess that magical ability to attract others, to inspire people’s interest or affection.
My evident inability to connect, complicated by a mixture of fury and helplessness that I couldn’t articulate, made school an ongoing trauma for me, a constant reminder of inevitable rejection. Luckily, my father understood this anguish. Because he’d taught English in inner-city schools and worked with troubled youth, I suspect he comprehended my endless struggle much better than I ever could. He knew intricate details about the public education system’s political structure and its organizational tendency to overlook kids who blended with silent seamlessness into the background.
On more than one occasion, both of my parents marched into various schools I’d attended as ferocious advocates against indifferent administrations that elevated rigid policies over an understanding of what children needed. Multiple times, my mother and father had to insist that teachers look beyond my low standardized test scores to see me, the quiet girl in plastic-framed glasses who barely said a word, and take two minutes to appreciate my love for writing, to allow me to prove that I could handle more demanding classes.
“Don’t judge Alisa by these scores. Give her an essay test instead,” my parents told the assistant principal of my high school. “You’ll see she belongs in Advanced Placement English.”
Due to their fierce involvement, the administrators relented and discovered that my parents were right. But it always took this level of impassioned effort because my teachers never seemed to draw these conclusions on their own. So my parents recognized the reasons behind the dismissive treatment I endured, which amounted to mandatory imprisonment in a system that just didn’t care.
Despite the feelings of enormous dejection that school generated for me then, I remember this period as a time when I enjoyed the closest relationship with my father. He did everything possible to provide emotional support, to offer a philosophical outlook that I could use as protection against the institutional coldness my classes routinely epitomized. And as the years went by, he always encouraged me to consider teaching as a profession.
“You know firsthand what it feels like to be lost and disregarded in a sea of kids,” he’d tell me, his expression serious and intense.
In fact, my father had literally seen this scenario occur when I’d attended elementary school and he watched the wild chaos that erupted on the playground during recess. Older and much younger children, which happened to be my age group at the time, were thoughtlessly mixed together without adequate supervision, causing the potential for dangerous circumstances. I didn’t know he’d stood outside the gate to watch this havoc, monitoring the school’s hazardous practice with valid concern. But he described what he saw to me later and related his subsequent conversation when he’d visited the principal.
Although my father had also been a teacher, with a Master’s degree in education from Harvard and even studied to be a principal himself at one point, this adminstrator treated him with arrogant disdain. Yet my father refused to allow such a disrespectful attitude impede his goal, persisting to ensure that safety precautions were followed. He eventually convinced the school to reorganize its recess program so all of the younger, vulnerable children were not at risk of getting hurt by aggressive, older kids anymore.
In so many profoundly important ways, my father took steps to reduce my torment at school, which encompassed ordeals of all kinds, to make the overall educational experience more tolerable for me. Whenever we discussed that time, especially as I matured, he always expressed hope that I would become a teacher some day and apply that understanding for the welfare of other children in need of a voice. I’d eagerly listen as my father described noteworthy episodes from his years as an English teacher, recalling the different kids he’d guided as they had passed through his classroom, their distinct personalities, and the significant lessons he’d learned from them, too. Despite the wonderful pleasure of listening to his detailed stories and feeling this affectionate connection, though, I couldn’t imagine willingly returning to an environment that inspired such negative memories.
“But your experience is valuable. It’s given you empathy,” he often told me as we sat at the dining room table together. “You can use it to make sure the kids in your classes don’t feel so lost and alone like you did.”
As usual, he was right. He understood that teaching would be the best, most enriching path for me decades before I ever did. Unfortunately, I never realized this reality until I began the wonderful opportunity of studying for my Ph.D. in English, where I learned what it meant to lead a classroom, to create a caring community while keenly recognizing those with the same fragility that I once embodied.
My father unexpectedly died months before I embarked on this important chapter, one he’d encouraged me to explore for so many years. It saddens me that he’s gone because he strived to make the world a better, kinder place, succeeding in ways that showcased his quite remarkable humanity. Because of my father’s absence, which I’ll forever view as a tragedy, I can never tell him that his thoughtful wisdom made such a pronounced difference in my life. Like the anecdotes he often shared from his career, teaching has enabled me to develop into a much more compassionate, more sensitive human being. It pushed me to look beyond myself and my private insecurities, transcending terrible shyness to consider how to help others, especially those in need of the greatest support.
As a child, I couldn’t see ever becoming a teacher because I identified myself as a victim, trapped in an atmosphere that punished me for being timid, easy to forget. But the very quality that caused this angst actually inspired empathic understanding to blossom. It’s an insight that benefits my students who feel just as disregarded as I once did.
In a national culture that’s increasingly apathetic, where the marginalization of those who lack power, the politcally accepted gender, the right ethnicity, and the most impressive financial means is more normalized than ever, empathy truly matters. My father lovingly taught me that advocacy of this nature does make a difference. And teaching is a method for such profound concern to take root, even if it only occurs in a single learning environment. My life is much more meaningful now because I’m a teacher, giving me purpose and direction.
As always, my father was right. I hope that wherever his spirit is today, he knows the gratitude I feel for the empathic awareness that he passed on to me. It’s the greatest gift and I’m forever thankful to him.