Being an educator is frequently an enervating experience. We work long hours, feel pressure from multiple fronts, and do so for little pay. But we love it, most of us. We seize upon particular moments where everything comes together like the carefully designed ending of a novel. I had one of those moments a few weeks ago.
Over spring break, one of my U.S. history students went to France with her family and visited Normandy Beach. In class, we were in the middle of a unit on World War II, which straddled the break. When she returned, she came to my office hours somewhat sheepishly, and started talking with great feeling about her trip.
My student told me how moving it was to visit the site of the D-Day landing, and how standing on the beach was a watershed moment. She told me that, as she stood at the liminal space where the waves lapped at the shore, she stared up at the hills where Nazi machine gun nests would have been. After describing this moment to me, she said, “I don’t think I would have gotten it if not for your class—I wouldn’t have been able to understand what it must have been like and put myself in those soldiers’ shoes on both sides.”
This was, of course, quite a moving moment for me as well. We always wonder whether our lessons actually mean anything to our students. For me, the notion of perspective likely remains my most fundamental idea in history education—if you cannot understand an event from the multiple perspectives of all historical actors involved, you do not truly understand an event. But to hear my student telling me that her experience on Normandy Beach mattered so much because of the idea of perspective? It was, in all honesty, a tremendous moment as a teacher.
What she did next blew me away. My student pulled out a small bag and removed from it a small glass jar (pictured right). The jar had sand from Omaha Beach that she had carried for me all the way across the pond. (If you are wondering, the sand is incredibly fine, almost like a dust. It is, for lack of a better word, beautiful, perfect sand.)
For one of the few times in my life, I was speechless. Not only had she thought of me during that experience, but it had been impactful enough that she went out of her way to bring back something of that memory to share with me. It was simply a magnificent moment as an educator.
I know this comes off as a “humble brag,” but I do not really care. The interaction meant a great deal to me, and I wanted to preserve that feeling here and share it with others. And, I wanted to hope that each of you have a similar experience sometime soon, even if I know you probably will not. Because, if you are a teacher, you know that these moments are few and far between—that is why we need to hold onto them so tightly.