I often tell people that my job as an ESL teacher is to help students find their voices. February 6 was one of those moments that I truly felt like I had succeeded in this mission.
I started writing poetry in middle school, and I started performing in high school. It was something that has been a major part of my life for years, and I was lucky because there were adults in my life that encouraged me to do this and tried to cultivate my passion for writing. So when I moved to Arkansas and made friends with another poet who started hosting a local open mic, of course I attended. Several years later, I am now in the position of the adults who were around me when I was in high school. I have a student who loves to sing, and has a beautiful voice (even the choir teacher says so). He often sings in my class. And if we have five spare moments, he’ll pull out his guitar. It’s kind of soothing, actually, to be in the classroom with him playing and singing, and one day I thought, wait a minute, I know where this student can sing!
So I invited him to open mic. I told him he would have to drive himself, but he could follow me there, and he was welcome to invite anyone else to come. It’s a free event, two towns over, which is not a lot when you live in a rural area. The students were talking about it all week leading up to the event–he was going to sing, his friends were going to come watch. He even convinced another student to do a duet with him. We made an arrangement to meet at the school 30 minutes before the open mic. I pulled up about 15 minutes early and they were already there–four students, excited faces waving to me through the window. And I got out and did the adult thing. I checked that they had a licensed driver and gave them my phone number, so if anything happened on the way over, they could reach me. And I warned them that it might be tricky to find parking. It didn’t even feel like the responsible thing. It just felt like the normal everyday, looking after your friends sorta thing. Basically, I was pretty much treating them the same way I would treat adults. And, when you think about it, that’s what high school students want, more than anything.
We arrived at the venue. I introduced them to my friend who was hosting. Open mic was small because it had been raining, and like the Assimov short story “Rain, Rain, Go Away,” folks around here disappear when it rains. I read some fiction. My friend read a poem. Another guy read several short humorous poems, which my students seem to enjoy quite a bit. Another man read from his blog. And then my students sang. The two of them together. And the small crowd liked them enough that they asked for an encore. And my student sang another song, even though he was worried he didn’t know it very well. Then we ate pretzels and chatted, and went home. But watching my kids up there on stage, I thought, I am watching them use their voices. And I guess they enjoyed it because they told me I should have them sing at my wedding. And honestly? I would enjoy that.
It was nice to spend time with my students outside of school–for us to see each other as more than just teacher and students. I hope we get to do this again. And I hope that they continue to see that their voices are worth sharing with the world.