At the end of each quarter at the high school, many students’ schedules undergo shifts. Maybe they switch to taking the required Health course, or maybe external pushes and pulls result in the order of their classes getting switched around. Sometimes, those pushes and pulls cause a student to be moved into the class of a different teacher.
This is what happened to Allegra’s schedule earlier this year, at the end of a quarter. With some consternation, she realized her new schedule had her moving from the tutelage of one Spanish teacher and into the classroom of another. When she reported this to me — and naturally it burbled out when she was upstairs, and I was halfway down the staircase, heading to the main floor — I didn’t understand what the problem was. “But I thought you don’t exactly love the teacher you’ve had? I thought the glacial pace, the lack of interesting content, and the feeling of being taught a warm, romantic language in a very Germanic manner — those things weren’t exactly making you thrilled about Spanish this year? So wouldn’t a move to a new teacher be a good thing?”
Standing at the banister on the second floor talking down to me while I craned my neck to look up at her, the girl clarified: “Yea, but in that class, at least I stand a chance of learning something. With the other teacher, the one they put me with for the new quarter, I won’t learn anything. It’s a move for the worse.”
Fortunately, as we stood there, still staged for the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, Allegra continued, “So when I saw my new schedule, I decided, ‘No, I don’t want this.’ The guidance counselors always say we can come see them with problems, so I went to the office, talked to a counselor, and now my schedule is fine. All my classes are staying the same next quarter, and I’ll have the same Spanish teacher.”
I hoped my face didn’t reveal my surprise. As a rule, our kids are so mild-tempered, so shoulder-shruggingly fine with almost everything, so averse to direct interactions — to the point that we can hardly get them to say hello to a person standing three feet from them — that I have trouble imagining scenarios where they have an issue and then deal with it. For the most part, they have made sure their lives don’t have problems because then they can glide.
I can’t imagine where they get it.
A day after Allegra got her schedule settled to her satisfaction, she was in Spanish class. At some point, she wandered up front to ask her Germanic romance-language teacher a question about the homework.
“Allegra!” the teacher started. “You aren’t going to be in my class next quarter. I was looking at the rosters and noticed that you’ll be switching into a different class.”
Well, actually, Allegra told her, I will be in your class next quarter.
“Oh, I didn’t know you’d gotten it switched back,” the teacher continued. “The other day, when I looked at my class list, your name wasn’t on it, and I noticed. I have to keep an eye on my stars, you know!”
As Allegra, my Juliet, stood above me, recounting this moment, her face was a mix of raised eyebrows, happy smiles, and wonder. “I mean, she’d never even talked to me before, really, and I don’t actually speak up a lot in her class, so I had no idea. She thinks I’m a star? I almost left her class without ever knowing that. How come I didn’t know I’m a star?”
There, her words drifting down from the balcony, came one of life’s important questions.
How come I didn’t know I’m a star?
As the 15-year-old and I considered that bit of life, the part where we don’t realize we’re valued, I trotted out an old chestnut: the story about when I telephoned my dance teacher, from whom I’d taken ballet and modern dance lessons for nine years, to tell her I would be quitting classes. Although her instruction had been a significant part of my life from the ages of seven through 16, I’d hit high school, joined the speech team, found new interests. If something had to give, it would be dance — because it wasn’t like I was built for a career as a ballerina or was going anywhere except around and around in tightly pirouetted circles with those dance classes. So I called Miss June to inform her of my decision.
Even now, I am still processing her reaction. “Oh, that’s too bad! You really have promise as a modern dancer. I would have loved to see you pursue that!”
Much like my daughter thirty years later, my reaction was a confounded Wait. What?
From Miss June, I knew I needed to pull my tummy in. I knew I needed to tuck my derrière under. I knew I needed to pull my shoulders back.
But it was only when I quit that I found out what Miss June really thought. It was only once I was done that I learned the words that had been barrel rolling inside Miss June’s head.
It was only when Allegra’s teacher thought she was losing an excellent student that Allegra learned her teacher thinks she is an excellent student.
It’s human nature, the business of having a thought flit through the brain and then neglecting to voice it. Sometimes, we just forget. Other times, we don’t want to be overbearing or come off as false. Perhaps we are consciously holding back praise; we don’t want to give someone a big head, or we feel awkward, assigning formality to the casual, creating the weight of “a moment.” Bizarrely, to extend praise to someone can feel like admitting a vulnerability in ourselves, like a rook-takes-knight power shift. In some cases, sitting with a compliment rather than expressing it is a deliberate teaching tool — since confidence must grow from within. Most frequently of all, we just don’t realize how very much someone might benefit from hearing the words.
Ah, but if we flip that awkward moment of formality, cast ourselves in the recipient role, hand ourselves the telephone receiver and whisper, “It’s Miss June. She has something to tell you!”…if we remember what it was like to be 15 and to self-motivate and to aim high in a class driven by ho-hum instruction…if we remember what it was like to be 15, even in the best of circumstances…if we remember what it is like to be a person of any age at all, walking through life with only a thin layer of skin sheltering a vulnerable heart…if we remember the times when we were 19 and a grandpa at the bus stop sauntered by and called out “How’d you get so beautiful, anyway?” or when our fathers told us “People are drawn to you because you have an effervescence” or when our crying friends snuffled “Thank you. I didn’t know what I was thinking until you helped me see it” or our husbands noted, mouths full, “You bake the best cookies; you make them so that they taste generous”…if we remember those holy, transformative moments that embrace our vulnerabilities and hold them to the sun…
how can we ever forget, neglect, hold back when it comes others? How can we allow the stars among us to feel that they are shining only for themselves?
Thus, I want to announce loudly and for all to hear:
Allegra is turning 16 today, and she is multi-talented, quietly confident, astutely observant, admirably self-possessed, firecracker smart. The world is lucky to have her.
May there never be a question about my feelings for you, my beloved girl, mi amada estrella.