Part of what makes a teacher good at her or his job is the amount of empathy they are cursed with. I have to admit that some people who work with kids are demanding, strict, harsh, and have absolutely no empathy at all. And some of them are among the best teachers there are, especially if they are sports coaches, foreign language teachers, or math teachers. They put you firmly through the discipline and make you know your stuff. Or they break you down and rebuild you so that you are stronger than before.
And there are those teachers who, on rare occasions, have too much empathy. Those teachers are the ones that cry hard when the principal has to bail them out of jail because they confessed to the crime of burglary at the motel because they happened to learn that Jose actually did it and Jose’s home life is hard because his family is so poor they have a dirt floor in their home and no working plumbing. Jose can’t possibly deserve prison, and they feel it in their hearts. And somehow they believe that, if only given a break, Jose will be an angel. Their hearts tell them things that a working brain could never accept.
But the average to good teachers, the ones who can lay claim to the appellation of “competent,” have to have a very clear idea of what it feels like to be a kid in their classes. They have to know what hurts and what heals and how you have to talk to a kid to make him feel better when he accidentally pooped his pants in class due to medical challenges. Or how to make that shy girl who rarely talks in class feel empowered when she correctly identifies Scout’s motivation when she defies Calpurnia, her nanny, to help out a friend in the book, To Kill a Mockingbird. Average to good teachers always walk into the classroom knowing that every kid in the room is mentally and emotionally naked for most of the school day… no matter how many layers of clothing they may be covering it up with.
And it is not easy being in rooms full of naked kids every day if you have more than the minimum share of empathy. Empathy makes you feel what they are feeling, all the anger, disgust, fear, sadness, anticipation, joy, and sorrow… all the embarrassing feelings brought on by being emotionally naked in front of peers and teachers… and that hot-looking new girl from California. You feel their pain. You feel their awkwardness. And if they are a wicked little pervert, you feel sick to your stomach as you realize you are seeing them as their least-acceptable, naked self.
And the curse doesn’t just end at the close of the school day.
You have to know going in that if you watch that Disney movie on TV you are going to cry at least three times, possibly endure heart-wrenching angst twice, and laugh unattractively like SpongeBob more times than you can count. And those are only fictional people. Curse it, you even cry during telephone commercials. Your daughter tells you about seeing the cyclists in the park almost run over a skunk, and you can practically smell it and feel the nausea in your gut. Your dog whines about the empty food dish and you feel that too. All because of the curse of empathy. If you have it, you are going to feel whatever they feel, whoever they are. Even if you don’t really want to.