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We Become Who People Say We Are

Everyone who arrives at your classroom door asks themselves a form of the question: Can I trust you? This is true even if they are an administrator, a parent, a colleague, or a student. How we answer that question is important because an essential part of trust is understanding that it carries the possibility of loss whether of tangible things or intangibles like respect, according to philosophy professor Carolyn McLeod. She writes that the act of trust involves four separate actions:

  1. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable to others
  2. Thinking well of others
  3. Believing that the other is competent to do what you ask
  4. Adopting a generous mindset about the motives of others (2015)

All of these principles came to life in the night school program where I taught for over a decade. Students transitioning out of jail or pregnant girls working on accelerating their credits before they gave birth often filled the seats.

I registered their often ironic names: Dulce, the name of the girl repeatedly suspended for fighting. Christian, the boy who draws anarchy symbols on his forearms. And Angel, the stereotypical “student from hell,” is the one who glares at me. Who rolls his eyes at me. It’s Angel who tempts me to make it personal between me and him.

Angel would die if he knew this, but I consider him one of my best teachers of trust. Court-ordered to attend my class, he glared at me when I registered him. Many teachers know that look. However, what I’ve learned from kids like Angel is that expression, “the mean mug” as they call it, is a front.

Growing up in Texas, I’ve seen my share of bullsnakes. They look just like rattlesnakes, but they’re not dangerous. When you scare them, they puff up to make themselves look as big as possible, hissing like crazy while simultaneously striking and moving backward. Angel behaved just like a bullsnake.

For years, I’ve fallen for this act. Gradually, with the help and model of the excellent teachers with whom I worked, I’ve learned to calm down and lean on a standby: food.

The fastest way around an attitude is also one of the oldest: offer food, particularly something sweet. For Angel, like many children in poverty, celebrations are rare, and those that involve big, colored confections even more so.

One night, my co-teacher brought in a sheet cake from a party she’d attended. Angel eyed the waves of piped white frosting, the beads of colored sugar sprinkled among plump mounds of fondant flowers. A tiny spark of longing flashed across his face so quickly that if you blinked, you’d miss it.

I asked him if he wanted a piece. He stared, irritation simmering inside his brown eyes. He needed to get the cake without me seeing him do it. It’s a small, but important part of trust to grant these small entitlements.

“Well, it’s there if you want it,” I said, walking away. When I came back, he’d gotten himself a corner piece and eaten it.

“Oh, good,” I said. “I’m glad you got some. But now you owe me. One page of writing for one piece of cake.”

“I ain’t writing nothing,” he said, smirking.

To maintain my temper and teach myself to see and connect to the invisible child inside the big, often rude bodies of my teenagers, I use another kind of sugar: verbal honey. I call these irritated students “sweet baby,” another Texas custom. Using this endearment softens me and helps me remember that learning something from someone you don’t really know is a vulnerable experience. It also really puts the listener off guard, something Texas women have known for a long time.

“Sweet baby, don’t write, then. Tell me why the judge ordered you here.”

He puffed up, telling me what a “bad kid” he was. As he talked, I noticed that the frosting had stained his teeth blue.

“Angel, if you can tell me all that, why don’t you write it? I want to show it to a guy in my class who says everything I give him to read is stupid and not real. He’d love your story. Would you like a laptop, or paper and a pencil?”

The question startled him. “A laptop, I guess,” he said, his face registering a kind of shock at his own answer. As the computer booted up, I drew a few boxes on a piece of paper to give him a structure to begin writing from and walked away.

To see a struggling student actually begin to attempt real work is like watching a butterfly land. You have to see it sideways so you won’t frighten it away.

When I came back around toward the end of class, I saw that he had written nearly an entire page.

“You are a writer, Angel, I knew it.” I could see the beginnings of a smile on his face.

“It was pretty easy,” he said, tilting the screen toward me.

What I read was rife with misspellings and barely intelligible sentences. But what I’ve learned about the first steps of trust in a classroom is that you have to meet each student where they are, celebrate what they can do, and show them a small success.

“You have all kinds of stories inside you,” I told him. He smiled.

That smile meant that for a small moment, he believed that he could. That smile meant that he felt actual pride in himself. That he believed he mattered. That his words have meaning and he has value.

Ultimately, that’s the gift of trust: a belief that we matter. This is so well-worn as to become cliche, but it doesn’t make it any less transformative.

We become who people say we are. When we say: I trust you, we are granting an identity and a promise to live up to. This idea is as old as Xenophon, one of Socrates’ students, who said:

There is a deep — and usually frustrated — desire in the heart of everyone to act with benevolence rather than selfishness, and one fine instance of generosity can inspire dozens more. Thus I established a stately court where all my friends showed respect to each other and cultivated courtesy until it bloomed into perfect harmony.

Try on a bit of trust in your students today and see if it doesn’t change the atmosphere in your classroom.

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