Updated: Jun 27, 2018
One of my most memorable moments working with young people was the moment after the moment I spent impersonating a blob fish. For the uninitiated, blob fish faces look like a mixture of a human face and a greyish, deflated balloon.
Why did I attempt to embody this singularly unsightly visage? For the sake of learning!
In January 2017 I headed to Washington, D.C. where I interned at a public high school.
Cut scene to a few days into my placement— students were going to do presentations on evolution at the end of the week. Ani, a student I had not yet met, stepped in late, and immediately put her head down. I checked in with my cooperating teacher, and he said that she was always like this—moody, sullen, checked-out. My coop, a new teacher himself, was clearly doing the best he could. He cared deeply about his students, but mountains of dubiously useful paperwork and other required errands prevented him from spending much one-on-one time with students like Ani.
“Wanna start on your project?” I asked her.
“No,” she deadpanned.
I wish I could say I honored her courageous and remarkable honesty in that moment. Instead, I was silent, rolling the word “insubordination,” around in my skull. It’s a contemptible word, undergirded by adults' petty entitlement to compliance. A teacher’s actual authority is nowhere near absolute, nor should we expect it to be; we’re working with humans, after all. Luckily though, I remembered part of one of my all-time favorite books, Life Enriching Education. I needed to “hear the need behind the no.”
I tried again, asking the all-important second question, “Are you okay?”
“No,” again. Another brave and honest answer.
“What’s up? We can talk about it if you want to.”
She told me that one of her friends had punched a teacher for being consistently racist and patronizing and was apparently now going to be in huge trouble. She also had some family issues on her mind.
I paused. There’s not much more you can say to that.
“I wouldn’t want to write about evolution if I’d just found that out either…” I considered just letting her have some space, but then I continued, “that said, I know you have a presentation at the end of the week. I doubt you need the added stress of not having anything ready to present. Would you like to work on the project with me? If you're willing to give it a shot, I’ll do my best to make it interesting."
It was that last promise that moments later had me impersonating a blob fish.
When I had asked her her favorite animal in order to find one she’d like to present, she replied, “blob fish,” daring me to not take her seriously.
After finding a picture online, I turned to her and imitated the face. She cracked up, and that laugh built a bridge in a fraction of a second. Between us, there was something like trust—something rare, precious, and fragile. Educational relationships rely on giving others access to things closest to who you are—your thoughts, hopes, and ideas. That requires building trust, a step too often neglected and impossible to standardize.
Because we couldn’t find enough sources on blob fish evolution, we found another type of fish to work on, grouper. It turned out that grouper were fascinating. Some had poisonous skin, others could change sex throughout their life cycles.
“You chose the coolest fish ever, Ani, you know that, right?”
She presented on Friday. It wasn’t perfect, and I wonder in hindsight if I may have contributed too much. That said, she didn’t have to live through being humiliated in front of her peers, which at that point was way more important than having comprehensive knowledge of the evolutionary history of fish.
At the end of the semester, the students described a person who had believed in them. Ani chose me.
But this was not a Hallmark teacher movie. And that was not the last chapter, fade to credits and a picture of Ani graduating from Harvard. It was not all Kodak teacher moments.
The next week I found her in the hallway, arguing with a school security guard I had gotten to know.
Ani had been cutting class. I was asked to escort her back.
Her teacher would not let her in because she’d cursed out the class earlier. We sat in the hall. I tried to ask her questions to calm her down and show her that I cared. She told me she needed help. Apparently she’d started out the year okay but then her grades had gone downhill. She wondered aloud about tutoring.
When she eventually (and very reluctantly) returned to class, I researched tutoring programs.
Before my internship ended, we had lunch together. I showed her a tutoring program—she said her friend attended it and that she might look into it. I wrote the contact info and my email on a post-it and told her to let me know if she had questions. I reminded her that she affects people on a daily basis, and that while teachers aren’t perfect, most are trying hard to be good people.
Working with young people is a gift and a privilege. Ani challenged me, but our relationship couldn't grow without honesty and a little friction. True education is founded on such relationships. She and I worked together as two humans with wills, flaws, emotions, and interwoven interests. Because she challenged me, I learned about who she was and what she really needed. And we both learned about fish.
But it wasn’t about the blob fish. It was about the confluence of values that guide my teaching and my life: learning, connection, and fun.
Discomfort in education is acceptable, if not essential, but never outright fear. It is incredibly difficult to learn amidst fear and pain, especially when the things you’re asked to learn don’t address the problems life demands that you solve. Educators must care, listen, meet students where they are, try again when things don’t work and help students make their school-time meaningful, no matter what they’re carrying with them through the door.
Thinking of Ani and the blob fish always reminds me of a question that is fundamental to the art and science of education. It was my second question to Ani, but should often be the first:
“Are you okay?”
For me, the toughest thing about working with Ani wasn't actually working with Ani, it was hearing other teacher's opinions about her. They literally said in the teacher's lounge that they had given up on her, that she was a problem, that she was a somewhat hopeless case.
She was brilliant, motivated (when given something worth being motivated about), and had a clear sense of what mattered and what didn't. She had clear priorities and strong boundaries any grown adult would envy. She had a great sense of humor that ranged from silly to sarcastic. She was loyal, respectful (when respect was earned), cared about fairness, and she had a commanding presence when not bored out of her mind. When other students were giving me a hard time, she immediately came to my aid by asking them rather vehemently to shut their faces.
I can only imagine how far all those characteristics would take her if other teachers had the right lenses to see them. But they didn't. They saw insubordination, disengagement, and disrespect. Knowing that I was only there for a month, that I would leave her with people whose primary story for her was one of being a "troubled," "problematic," "apathetic," student, was more than a little heartbreaking. I hope she remembers how I treated her, and knows she deserves that care and more, always. I will certainly remember her and what she taught me for many, many years to come.