Teaching Them To Live

Reflections on teaching and the art of pouring a cup of tea.

(French version here.)

A few weeks have passed since the new school year began. My wife and I are already well into our teaching routine. Tuesday evening is usually the moment when we feel the most like old ladies: at that point we’ve been through two full days of teaching and we still have to face the rest of the week, getting up before dawn, planning exercises, schedules, answering students’ emails and grading essays. That day, we generally dine on porridge.

When we feel up to it (especially in winter when it’s cold and dark outside), we pick one evening (usually a Wednesday evening) and treat ourselves with a glass of wine at home with crackers and cheese, extending our legs upon each other’s chair, massaging each other’s feet, chatting about how our week’s going so far (and exchanging classroom gossips).

We spend our time running. Running between classrooms, running to catch buses and trains, running to pee, running to get a form signed, running through our mind to remember what the hell is the first name of that student we’re about to speak to.


There’s a time everyday (usually during evening commuting) when I’m thinking about them. Not them as a crowd, but them as a sum of individuals.

I’m putting the mind-blowing puzzle of their many faces back together in my mind and wondering where they’ll be and what they’ll do in a few years. I’m questioning myself. Was I wise to advise this one she should go for that career? Was I right to tell this one he should consider studying abroad?

I’m wondering if I was not too boring during this afternoon’s class, or not too goofy during this morning’s class (I like to hear them laugh! But then, do they think I’m just a clown?).

I like to hear them laugh because sometimes, I have this crowd in front of me and I can feel the sum of tensions. The terror. The doubts. The dreams. The indifference. The terror about this indifference and the doubts about these dreams.

This has a weird effet on me. There are all these theoretical notions I’m juggling with — three, four, five at a time (there must be a circus around because I can hear its music.) And suddenly I’m wondering what it is that I am here for. To teach them notions? To relax them? To inspire them?

I remember this one appointment in my office. She had trouble grasping a very specific notion. She was worried about her exam and I had agreed to meet her a few times after class to re-explain and re-formulate things for her.

On the day of her first appointment, I had poured myself a cup of tea and I had prepared some exercises. She entered, answered some of my questions about where exactly her difficulties lied and then, she started to cry.

The previous evening, her parents had decided to put her brother in a psychiatric ward because his schizophrenia was now making him aggressive. She was living a few dozens of kilometers away from them all, with her (female) partner. There was nothing she could do for her brother. Things had not been so good lately. She cried and cried and cried and apologized and sobbed and cried.

I did the only thing I know to do in such cases: I poured her a cup of tea and asked if she wanted sugar.

As I waited in silence for her to stop crying, tending to her tea bag and the temperature of her water, I thought that maybe the whole point of me being in this room (maybe even of me existing right there, right then?) was to be the one that would pour her a cup of tea.

Tea-pouring civilizes situations. It is a silent statement (and mutual agreement) that nothing is raging in the outside world and that we are in fact sitting in confortable chairs in a private reading room. It is 5 o’clock and the weather has been mild all day.

We discussed her brother and her partner for the rest of her appointment: how she was not responsible for him being ill; how her partner was probably trying to cope with the situation too; how the two of them should probably stick together; how her own well-being was essential because the better she would feel, the more helpful she would be for her brother and her family when the time has come to help them.

That day, I think it dawned on me. This thing between me and my students. More than teaching them to learn, I’m teaching them to live. In return, they teach me to make something of my life. Year after year, we make each other wiser.

They don’t know I’m writing this. They don’t know how much they matter.

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