I was living in the promised land—the two-week holiday break that most of you by now have kissed goodbye due to a workplace that doesn’t adhere to the school calendar. I boarded a plane, left my school life in Michigan, and came home to Christmas movies and cookies in Massachusetts. Yet despite my best efforts, my thoughts followed me home. I laid awake in my childhood bed, replaying interactions and picturing students whom I had somehow slighted and whose trust in me seemed irreparably broken. My students, more than I would like to admit, openly dislike me.
Instead of trying to work through my (possibly imagined) problem, I stuffed it in the back corner of my mind and resolved to deal with it when I got back to Michigan. It was the holidays, and I wasn’t going to let my work difficulties ruin my fun. But media talks, ideas stew together, and there is nothing new under the sun.
(And also, I’m back in Michigan.)
Zadie Smith in her collection of essays Feel Free writes a playful and philosophical exploration of the celebrity meet-and-greet, namely Justin Bieber’s meet and greets. She dissects Bieber’s experiences through Martin Buber’s two categories of relationships: the attitude of “I-Thou” and “I-It.” I-It relationships are ones of utility—the relationships we have with the world around us. We not only view the things (paper, smartphone, sidewalk) but also the people around us with this lens, seeing other human beings—such as ones who pay way too much money to spend two minutes with their favorite celebrity—as “dot[s] in the world grid of space and time.” The other attitude, I-Thou, occurs when we recognize the actuality of a person and they, in turn, recognize the actuality of us. Smith argues that Bieber unfortunately does not seem to be able to cultivate those relationships with his massive fanbase.
(As I read this essay, flying thousands of feet in the air over what was probably rural Pennsylvania, wheels began to churn. The chef in my head stopped stirring the essay pot, ran its finger over my memories, and selected a spice entitled “Little Women, 2019, Greta Gerwig.”)
Thinking through this lens, the I-Thou relationships—the deeper, rarer ones—are the heart and soul of Little Women, and Gerwig was somehow able to capture these relationships on film. There’s a scene where Marmee (Laura Dern) surprises the women with a letter from their father, and they all immediately arrange themselves in a tableau of familial affection: Jo (Saoirse Ronan) sharing a seat with Marmee and peeking over her shoulder, Beth (Eliza Scanlen) leaning against them with her arms around Meg (Emma Watson) and Amy (Florence Pugh), Meg with her face tucked into Beth’s shoulder, and Amy resting against Beth, her face to the ceiling. “Jo only sits behind Marmee so we can’t see her cry,” Amy mutters, making me believe they have assumed this heap hundreds of times.
(My chef, satisfied with the essay-movie concoction, tossed in my knot of emotional teacher angst and crossed their fingers.)
Deep down in my heart, I have visions of myself in a classroom brimming with I-Thou relationships: teacher to student, student to teacher, student to student. But as Smith, Buber, and Gerwig remind me, we cannot be fully actualized people to everyone we meet. Justin Bieber cannot be somebody to every one of his fans. The Marches reveal that I-Thou relationships are tested over and over again and are only truly extended towards a precious few. While I should celebrate the I-Thou in media and in my own life, I should not be naive; I-It relationships with other people are how I am able to bear the hundreds of students that pass through my classroom—how we all are able to bear the world.
I long for the beauty of the sisters in a heap on their mother’s lap to be transposed seamlessly into my classroom—for me to bring comfort and familiarity and safety. But perhaps it is okay that I am just an object to my students for now. Perhaps I am still learning how to sail my ship.
Alex Johnson (‘19) is a virtual computer science teacher and a proud resident of the Creston neighborhood in Grand Rapids. When she isn’t reading Young Adult fiction, she’s playing board games with her housemates, listening to podcasts, scrolling on education Twitter, and preaching the gospel of intentional community to anyone who will listen.