When my best friends have weddings, and I want to say a few words at their rehearsal dinners, I have been forced to perform raps to express how much I love them and how happy I am for them. The reason I rap has nothing to do with my rapping skills (although if you really want to know, they’re pretty good). The truth is, I have to rap. Because if I get up there and try to articulate my feelings for people I love in a traditional speech, I will just start crying. And not like cute, wipe-the-tears-away, collect-myself crying. But like the snot, gross, can’t-breathe crying.
My first year teaching I think I cried every single day. Ask my sisters, or my parents, or the people on my subway ride home. I seriously cried every. single. day.
Two weekends ago, I yet again did some serious crying. But these tears were very different than first-year Marni-teacher tears. These were 9th-year Marni-teacher tears: reflective, grateful, overwhelmed-by-all-the-love, -support, -luck, and -encouragement Marni tears.
One of my students and I were asked to speak at Facing History’s annual benefit dinner. My first thought was, “Oh s*&t. How am I going to not cry?!” And also: “Wow.”
So, I decided to conquer my crying head on. And in front of 800 people, composed of students, fellow educators, friends, strangers, generous donors, and one of my heroes, I unabashedly confessed my identity as…. a crier.
In fact, my speech opened with: “When people ask me who I am, what is at the forefront of my identity, I without hesitation say: I am a teacher. To my family and friends, I am known as the crier. And to my students, I am the teacher most likely to cry in class.”
And sitting right in front of me, listening to me talk about my crying, was Bryan Stevenson, literally the best person ever and an exemplary human in every way and I can’t even finish this sentence because he’s just too wonderful and I can’t believe this happened to me and I am getting overwhelmed and I have to breathe. BREATHE.
So as I was saying: Bryan Stevenson is—in addition to being the best human, the best TED talker, and the best writer—a really, really, big deal. In my universe: the biggest of big deals. I seriously felt like I was essentially telling President Obama: “Oh hey Barack. Just so you know, I cry a lot.”
And while I couldn’t see Bryan’s face, he was there. At the front table, in the sixth chair. And since when I had first met him in person approximately 42 minutes before my speech, I was a bumbling buffoon, I knew I had to keep it together. Not just for the 800 people out there, but for Bryan. And for first-year teacher Marni who would’ve never been able to do this. So for most of my five minutes, I held it together. I spoke of the amazing impact Facing History has had on my students and my classroom, and how I cried a lot. And I spoke of moments when my students connected with historical moments that seemingly are generationally and culturally distant, but are in actuality so very close.
I shared the story of bringing in Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a 93-year-old survivor of the Tule Lake Japanese Internment Camp, who had spoken to my students:
“And then, the lunch bell rings. Hiroshi think it’s his hearing aid. So he takes it out and continues to talk. AND NOT A SINGLE STUDENT GETS UP FROM THEIR SEAT. Not one of them looks at each other with a “can we go now?” Face. They are HANGING ON his EVERY WORD. He continues to speak for TWO MINUTES AFTER THE BELL. And while those two minutes were by all teacher definitions pure magic, it wasn’t until I read their thank-you letters that I realized this experience helped my students see themselves as the next generation of upstanders.
One of my students, Brittney, wrote:
‘Thank you for coming and sharing your experience. I learned how far people would go just to marginalize a group of people due to their fear, but in reality, their fear is just ignorance…. and how we use stereotypes as a way to judge people. I’ll bear witness and remember so nothing like that could happen again.”
I didn’t actually cry until it came time for me to introduce my student, Arvaughn. He had won a national scholarship through Facing History the previous year for his mind-blowing spoken word, which he performed that night. For 800 people. For Bryan Stevenson. I began to cry, but am proud to say that at least while up there, it was the cute, wipe-the-tears away, collect-myself crying. (I think.)
I wish I could think of a way to put into words just how deeply lucky I felt for that evening—for the chance to meet Bryan Stevenson, and tell him how inspiring he is, and how much his dedication and passion move me and inform my classroom, for the chance to introduce one of my beloved, insanely talented and inspiring students and to be reminded that our work as teachers is also such a big, big deal.
And for the chance to speak, even for just five minutes, on behalf of so many teachers who work so hard, who do such incredible things, and who often, never get opportunities like this. And so when I got home that night, I couldn’t help it.
I got in my bed, watched Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk for the ten-thousandth time, and cried the snot, gross, can’t-breathe crying. And I think it’s safe to say, I was honestly the happiest I have ever been. Because I, 9th-year-teacher Marni, realize that on so many levels, I got to be part of something so rare, and so special. And I understood that this night, and all the crying moments leading up to it, were more than anything, a testament to the cocoon of boundless support, mentoring, and encouragement my family, friends, coworkers and students have wrapped me in for 9 years. I don’t have a rap to synthesize it all just yet, but trust me, I’m working on it.