Some people have embarrassing moments. I tend to bypass those and move straight for the humiliating. As an example, imagine breaking down into tears in the middle of teaching a classroom full of teenagers. Embarrassment? I think even humiliation is a kind euphemism.
The first time it happened to me was my first year as an instructional assistant. The teacher assigned me three reading groups, each reading a different novel aloud and then discussing it together. Everything seemed fine until I saw the title of one of the books: Where the Red Fern Grows.
“I can’t read this book,” I tell her.
“I can’t read this book.” Repetition is often the key to understanding. For emphasis, I shake the book at her.
“The dogs die.”
Blank, non-comprehending eyes stare back at me. What part of “I can’t read aloud a book in which dogs die” is so difficult to understand?
With a heavy sigh, I admit with unapologetic sharpness, “I cry every time.”
She nods. “I know. It’s sad.”
That’s it? It’s sad? I think heart-rending, painful and guaranteed to induce tears is more accurate. My stunned disbelief must be apparent because she asks, “Would you like to take a different group?”
“What are the other books?”
She gestures to the stacks of novels on the round table behind her. I step around her to peruse the other titles. The Outsiders featuring gang wars and a boy who burns in a church. Not really any more appealing. Next to that is a stack of red paperbacks: Number the Stars about the Nazi occupation of Denmark. Not a very exciting story, but at least it has a semi-happy ending. The final book is The Bridge to Terabithia. I have recently read this since she hinted that it would be one of the novels we were using. Do I think reading about a best friend dying will be more palatable than the dead dogs?
“I guess I’ll stay with this,” I tell her. As unappealing as the thought is, I comfort myself with the fact that it will be weeks before we get to the sad part of the book. I’m pretty sure I feel a sick day coming.
Instead, the day we read about the coon hunt gone awry is such a summery spring afternoon that we sit outside beneath the tall evergreen trees. Wind ruffles the pages. The fresh, pine-scented air brings the reality of the woods at night clearly to mind. I try to cover up my emotions, but there’s just something about a clot of mucus in the throat that makes speaking impossible.
Three young teenagers are aghast, practically gaping while my tears threaten, unwilling to be quelled. Understatement: I feel mortified. However, their attention has never been so completely focused on my face or words.
“Are you crying?” one girl asks.
Gulping down the infernal throat-frog, I admit, “This part is so sad. It always makes me cry.”
“I hate when animals die.”
“I cried when we had to put my dog to sleep last fall.”
Who knew overly dramatic, hormone-driven teenagers could be compassionate and empathetic?
The next time, it wasn’t quite as horrifying. Reading one-to-one with a student decreased the audience. The scene described a heart-to-heart talk between a misunderstood daughter and her recently remarried dad about the mother’s passing. A few tears fell.
“Are you crying?” my student asked, turning to stare at my face with wide eyes.
“It’s really sad,” I choke out.
Afterward, she tells the whole class how sad her book is and she’s not sure if she likes it anymore. When she whispers to her friends a few moments later, is she telling them how weird it was when Mrs. Hughson started crying? I refuse to feel ashamed. My tears prove that effectively written prose can evoke deep emotions.
Today, however, was a completely different ball game in front of the entire class. How I managed to read about the notification from the army of the young soldier’s death without even batting an eye, I’ll never know. Stymied at last, the clog begins to form while reading the reflection on the unimpeachable character of the recently departed. Why is it that “Only the Good Die Young”?
Of course, I must appear strong, so I attempt to struggle through it. I swallow, blink rapidly and even try to clear my throat. I look toward my feet so I won’t see 24 eyes staring at me expectantly. Waiting to hear the rest of the story? Or waiting to see me break down and sob like an over-emotional, pre-menopausal, middle-aged woman?
It’s no use. I can’t go on. The teacher who I assist steps in and I have to step out. Red-faced and red-eyed, my emotions ooze from every pore. One Kleenex, and then another, before I’m also red-nosed. What is wrong with me? Did I break down this way when I read the book at home a few weeks ago? Maybe. It seems the tears have fogged my memory banks.
When I return, the classroom atmosphere is akin to a morgue. All eyes once focused on the teacher, turn to follow my progress across the back of the room. I take a seat next to one of the boys. He’s writing, or doodling, but he looks up. His eyes are wide, his lips slightly parted, a question obvious in his eyes, “Are you okay?”
“They were as good as gold after you left,” Mrs. Tayler tells me later.
We’re talking about the last period of the day. On any normal day, this group could enter a chat marathon. Today, every one of them understood the seriousness of a single moment.
Just call me Confucius, I guess. I’ve created a new proverb: A teacher’s embarrassment is a great teacher.