I recently met a new crop of students who will head off to Teach for America this summer, and I was reminded of how much I like teachers for their mix of pragmatic zeal, toughness, and intellect. I wondered what advice I could distill for them, and I realized my thoughts (a) seemed a bit tough themselves and (b) could apply as well to teachers and students as to authors and fictional characters.
1) The teachers and students (or characters and authors) you meet are survivors, and you need to respect that they have survived. You may not like what they have done to survive, or how they continue to survive, but until you yourself can survive, you cannot much expect them to respect you.
2) The things you do to survive may not always be the things that help your students thrive. You might as well accept that, forgive yourself and the students as needed, and move on to make things better. Indeed, it is comforting to think that harm only results from evil, but that is seldom the case—and I don’t even mean some Arendtian banality of evil sense. You can inflict harm from ignorance, fleeting inattention, and understandable incompetence. You will inflict harm. You will be harmed. You may want to assign blame to feel better, but hesitate to assign blame to people rather than actions.
3) In case you forget it, you truly can make the world a better place, second by second, person by person, and many times that will also be fun.