My English students recently completed a memoir assignment in which they discussed events in their past that had a profound impact on who they are today.
We brainstormed what these events might be; things like graduations, births and deaths came to students’ minds. I asked them to think about the seemingly small moments that had a big impact. They began to recall different memories: their first time playing the trumpet, being caught in the rain during an afternoon jog or enduring a teasing session on the elementary school playground. These are really the moments that define us, I proffered.
I want to be patient, hard-working, kind and empathetic. But I lose my cool when my toddler takes her shoes and socks off while riding to preschool, even though we talked about how she wouldn’t do that for what seemed like the 100th time.
I say I’ll wake up early and get grading done, but instead I snooze my alarm.
I see an opportunity to offer more than just a weak ‘hello’ when I see a colleague in the hallway, but pass it up in favor of getting to my office quickly.
I hear my husband tell me he’s tired and promptly let him know that I am, too, instead of asking what happened to leave him feeling so drained. Despite efforts, it’s clear that I’m not quite who I want to be.
But our identity doesn’t just come from our own efforts to craft and define it. Maybe more so, it comes from those around us. Like the boy raised by wolves that runs around on all fours and growls to communicate, we are who everyone around us says we are. And if that’s true, then our efforts to be good people can not only shape our own identity, but also positively shape the identities of others.
An example: one of my students always thanks me on her way out of the classroom. The first time she did it, I instinctively replied with a cheery, “Oh, thank you, Amanda!” I didn’t know exactly what she was thanking me for. Teaching the class? I get paid to do that. I didn’t feel particularly worthy of an additional “thank you.”
But now that we’re a few weeks in, I have really come to cherish that “Thank you, Natalia.” I’m still not sure exactly what it’s for, but it makes me feel like I’m doing something she appreciates. It makes me feel like I’m a good teacher or a warm presence or an interesting person, or something! It gives me a positive idea of who I am, and all it takes is three words from this student on a regular basis.
I don’t know what it costs Amanda to offer me that parting gift at the end of class. I’m sure some days she doesn’t feel it as strongly as others. But it’s part of her identity — she is grateful. And in turn, it has impacted my identity in a meaningful way. Thank you, Amanda.
Natalia Naman Temesgen is an independent contractor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.