I’ve been teaching college students for almost 16 years. Make that 20 years, if you count teaching assistantships in graduate school! This vocation has had its ups and downs, along with ever-shifting dynamics. When I began, for example, I was almost the same age as my students. Now, I’m old enough to be their mom.
When I first started teaching, I didn’t have any children of my own. I was also full of hopeful, starry eyed, spilling-out, change-the-world love. I remember the first time I stood before a group of students in my classroom. My classroom! I was filled with love from my head to my toes—filled with love for all those strangers looking back. But they were not strangers. They were my students!
I still feel echoes of that “bonding moment” every time I stand in front of a new class today. My students. New parents often feel a sudden rush of love when they first hold their newborn baby. I feel that way with my students, a bit. I consider that a gift from God.
I remember how, in those early years, I’d suffer emotionally with my students. It wasn’t something I’d show a lot while at work, necessarily. But back at home in the quiet, usually when I was in prayer, my students’ confidences—about failing romances, family tensions or mental illness—would come flooding back to me. I would feel a need to rescue all of them, to solve all their problems. I hadn’t quite learned, yet, to yield it all up to God. I stood there, right across from my good divine Father, sagging under a burden He was willing and eager to carry. My students were like “my” children, yes. But I was a child, too.
I know a lot of compassionate people who stagger under the weight of other people’s hurt. Most of these people are women—but not all. It’s a gift, I think, to feel other people’s pain and suffer alongside them, just a bit. It can help us understand. It can help us notice details, make connections, even game out solutions (when appropriate). It can make us smarter, more perceptive. It sharpens our memories and gives us broader perspective. But it can be a lot.
After a few years, very suddenly, I went from having too much teacherly affection to having no affection.
I gave birth to my first child, and quickly I plunged into a dark, two-year period of post-partum depression. During this time, I felt affection for nothing, delighted in nothing. I went through the motions. I was a brittle, hollow shell.
The depression was triggered by a lot of things, including just the sheer, physical stress of it all. But mainly it was triggered by an absence: when my daughter was born, I did not feel a surge of love for her. I felt instead that she was an alien thing, accusing, thrust into my arms, screaming for help I didn’t know how to give.
Accusing? It seems crazy now, but I felt that my infant daughter’s eyes were accusing—her big, beautiful, wide, innocent blue eyes. (And her eyes today are still just as big, beautiful, innocent, and blue.) I felt that she was judging me for my lack of affection, my coldness, my failure as a mother. My insides shrank in embarrassment and shame under that clear, blue gaze. I held her as much as I could, I fed her from my breast, I gave her every good thing I could think of. But the guilt for my lack of feeling, my lack of affection, ate away at me like acid, filling me with holes, making me jagged. I was tormented by nightmares of my daughter dying horrible, accidental deaths while I stood impassively by. I thought I didn’t deserve to live. And I thought I was failing my daughter—destroying her.
So I gave her to God.
I said, “God, I can’t love her. You have to love her. She’s yours. Love her for me.”
And He took her, and she still belongs to Him, I know. Though I love my daughter to distraction now, God loves her more, and she will always belong to Him more than she belongs to me. Just as I belong to Him. Just as we all do.
Therapists (or just therapy-wise people) will tell you to erect good “boundaries.” I think that is good advice. But a higher advice might be to give our loves (or the lack), to God. In his own time, He will sort them out and align them so that His own, pure love can flow unimpeded through the shapes and connections and channels that are made.
When I finally recovered from my post-partum depression, my daughter became my dearest heart, though she still belongs to God my Father. And my relationships with students became different, too. I understood now, from hard experience, that I had to give all of them, every day, over and over, to God.
In practice, this meant lots of things. It meant pausing, considering, letting go. Whereas before my heart might instantly lurch to solve a student’s problem, now it stood still with its little heart-hands raised, yielding the problem upward. Whereas before I might put too much emphasis on, might even feed on, the momentary “good feelings” that flowed from affectionate exchanges, now I viewed “good feelings” as a minor perk, a “cherry on top,” vis-a-vis the larger quest to render to God what was His. My real purpose, above both teaching art history and creating good feelings, was to help move my students—God’s children—slowly, maybe imperceptibly, to their distant fulfillment.
Now, in a time of pandemic, I frequently have to love my students, and render them to God, through the barrier of computer screens. As all of us teachers know, a disembodied head floating in a square is no substitute for a living, breathing, incarnate person. I realize now, all the more, how completely my loving, affectionate, teacherly instincts had been honed to pick up on the smallest details of body language and vocal modulation. (Masks don’t help either!) Needs, potentials, unspoken pains, are so much harder to “read” in our time of plague!
Give it to God. Give them to God.
Recently, I received my first-ever negative review on a popular rating site for college professors. (What was I doing even looking at that website in the first place?) The anonymous reviewer’s critiques were mind-boggling. Unjust. I could refute them in a million ways! Who wrote this? I had no idea anyone felt this way!
Give it to God. Give them to God.
Thank you, anonymous student, for exposing a little cobweb of vanity that my Father can now sweep out!
In God, there are no boundaries. Or at least, there don’t have to be. If we let Him, God will come so near to us that our hands will become His hands, and our minds will become His mind.
But God will never move too fast for us. He’ll never seduce. He draws near gently, tiny step by tiny step, letting us take down the boundaries ourselves so that we can, with dignity and hospitality, host Him – welcome Him in.
When we are all united with God, one day, we won’t feel overwhelmed anymore by the bigness of others’ needs and feelings. We will welcome all. Lordly and stately, we will open our arms to graciously receive, and the very best will always be warmly given, with artful and noble grace.
Then I will love thee, students, as hearts of my heart, and hearts of His heart. And I will know thee, students, as kings and queens of strange realms, blazing bright, in the landscape of our Father’s surprising, unfurling infinity.
To Him be the power and glory forever and ever, Amen.