I sometimes think I suffer from the opposite of attachment disorder. Instead of having difficulties forming attachments, my problem is getting too attached, especially to my students. This was pretty understandable, I told myself, when I taught at a performing arts high school where I mentored and worked with young dancers over a period of years. When you share a passion for an art form and spend that much time sweating together during daily classes and rehearsals, it’s inevitable that you develop close bonds. Not surprisingly, years later, I’m still in touch with several of these students. They’ve gone on to do amazing things in and out of dance and many have families of their own now. Though they are far flung, the connection remains.
Now that I’m retired from dance and writing professionally, my teaching is in a very different situation and environment. I’m a part-time instructor in English composition at a local university. I’m on campus only two days a week, and I have my students for only one semester. The vast majority are not taking my classes because they share my love of reading and writing the way my dance students and I shared a passion for movement all those years ago. They signed up because English composition is required, and they need their ticket punched to move on with their college careers.
So you’d think that in this scenario, I wouldn’t get particularly attached to this ever-changing cast of characters in my classes. Yet here I am not even halfway through the semester, and I’m already dreading not seeing many of my current students again.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m careful to maintain boundaries. I am their teacher, not their mother or their friend. And yet, I find it impossible not to care about them. Maybe it’s because I work hard to create classroom environments in which students feel safe sharing. Or maybe it’s because my students start the semester off writing personal pieces, memoirs and “This I Believe” essays. Whatever the reasons, as we begin to get to know one another, I find myself drawn in by their stories, their struggles, and their resilience. There’s the young man from the projects who wrote a searing poem about walking home from a party last summer and watching his best friend be gunned down in a drive-by shooting. And then there’s the student who is proudly out to her friends and teachers, but can’t yet bring herself to come out to her staunch Catholic parents. In my last class of the day, there’s the bright whipper-snapper, the sixth of eight children, who is absolutely determined to get into the highly competitive nursing program. There’s not a doubt in my mind that she’ll make it.
At the end of the semester, this crop of students will move on. I’ll miss them and feel sad and tell myself it’s ridiculous to get this attached to students I taught for twice a week for one semester. Clearly I suffer from a “too-attached-for-your-own-good syndrome.”
On the other hand, it beats not caring. An elderly wise woman I know is fond of saying, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Students are intuitive. They know I care.
So I guess caring too much is better than caring too little—even if it does make the end of semesters bittersweet.