September 12, 2001 was my first day in a classroom as a teacher.
I walked into that classroom still shocky and raw, my face puffy and eyes red from a sleepless night spent watching the news. My body protested its now-upward stance, wanting to re-establish the fetal curl that it had formed for the last day.
I walked into that classroom still unsure of the state of the country and even more unsure of my role with these students. I wanted someone to tell me it was going to be okay. I wanted someone to tell me what to do. But now I was the one who was supposed to the calming and the directing.
I walked into that classroom and saw dozens of faces, questioning and scared, mirroring my own. I may have been the teacher, but this was one lesson I didn’t know the answer to.
The pledge that morning broke out of its usual autopilot, each word felt as well as spoken. During the moment of silence that followed, more than one tear dripped from mournful eyes, falling silently onto the carpeted floor.
We gathered together that day, more than one class filling a room. It was as though we needed the support of numbers and feared the threat of isolation. Without prompting, the students arranged the chairs to form a messy circle. They understood that in order to get though this, they needed to be united.
As the morning progressed, the teachers pushed their own fears and sorrows aside in order to tend to those of the students. They told stories. They asked questions. We listened and we talked. One student had a parent that was still unaccounted for. Another had an uncle working the front lines. We may have been hundreds of miles away from ground zero, but we were only inches away from tragedy.
The boundaries of teacher and student blurred on that day. We were all reduced to the lowest common denominator of humanness. And nothing else mattered. It was a moment between.
Over the next few days, we re-asssumed the roles of teachers and students, the former safely tucking emotions away in order to be the stoic guide.
It was a strange introduction to teaching.
A baptism by tears.
Years later, I again entered a classroom with my face stained and puffy from lack of sleep and an excess of tears. But this was a personal tragedy, one that I did not share with the students. I tried to remain stoic and composed, but sometimes the pain broke through. And even though we never spoke of it, the students somehow knew. And they met my vulnerability with compassion and patience. They never questioned my absences or my laspes in attention. They may never know how much their kind words or unexpected hugs helped me through that year.
It was a reminder that we are all students as well as teachers.
That vulnerability can be embraced rather than attacked.
And that tears are a christening that we all understand.