“Good morning…uh…uh…uh,” I said to the girl coming down the hall. Her mask was over her nose. Her hood covered her head so only her eyes peeked out. Who is the girl behind the mask? “Uh…uh…oh! Carla, it’s you,” I said as she got closer. We chuckled together.
On another day, I greeted the girl going into the next-door classroom. “Good morning, Faith.” Dark eyes twinkled at me above the neck gaiter stretched over her lower face. A half-minute later another group of students trooped down the hall. “Good morning, Faith. Wait a minute, who was that I just saw go in the door?” because this really was Faith. Who was the other girl behind the mask?
I recall a student from years past who spent their school days questioning teachers, throwing out snide comments, and at times retorting disrespectfully when they were called out. This student was difficult to work with. Then I saw them in their home setting and I saw a different child. Who really was the child behind the mask?
Another child was quick to think I can’t. Yet, they could do it if it was of importance and interested them. Who was the child behind the mask? Did the mask cover up laziness? Or did the mask cover up a genuine inability?
This child is very quiet at school. Yet at home they come alive. Who is the child behind the mask?
This student is a clown. If life gets a little tense or they get backed into a corner the clown mask comes out and everyone has to laugh. But is the clown wearing a mask or not? Maybe not but then again, they may be.
This student went through school seemingly enjoying being the one who didn’t want to fit in. They went out of their way to break out of the expected mold. Their attitude seemed to be I’m going to get you before you get me. They always had a quick quip or dry comment to make. Who was the real child behind the mask? Because, in later years the mask began to slip and the hurting individual began to emerge.
I sat in the parent conference quietly fuming to myself. The accusation was unjust, the child of the parent just as much at fault as the child they were blaming. But with my mask of self-preservation in place, I found myself agreeing with the parents.
Today my students and co-teachers are wearing literal masks but every year we encounter students wearing figurative masks. As teachers, we put them on ourselves. Literal masks today impede our relating with other people. Our words get muffled, we can’t read expressions, and sometimes we don’t even recognize those around us. Likewise, the figurative mask keeps us from knowing the real person and the real issues. How can we see behind the mask?
Sometimes a mask is necessary. We expect doctors and nurses to wear masks in their work. A poultry farmer wears a mask to combat dusty conditions. Other occupations require masks. Currently, masks are doing some good in protection against infection.
As teachers, we should mask the frustration we feel with the student who isn’t understanding and isn’t attempting to understand. We should mask our distaste for cleaning up the mess left behind by a sick student who left his breakfast all over his desk. We should mask the impatience we feel when we are running behind schedule and students don’t understand how to move more swiftly. We should mask the initial sharp response we feel when our authority is questioned. A mask is a protection against a perceived unpleasantry or threat. Many times, bringing out our mask for a short duration makes our responses to unpleasant situations more Christ-like. But masks can also be detrimental. Masks can hide evil – think of a bank robber. Masks can be worn in a dishonest way.
Why do our students, co-teachers, and we ourselves wear a mask at times? The most obvious reason is that of self-preservation. Underlying that is often an issue of trust and honesty. We want those around us to think we have life under control, that we understand what is happening. We do not like to be uncomfortable. Putting on a mask is a way to maintain our image. As teachers, we do well to examine our motives for what we do and say and work to be honest in our dealings with others.
How can we as teachers see what lies behind our students’ masks? These days, when I get home from school, I put my cloth mask away. I’m in my safe place surrounded by my “bubble.” I don’t need the mask’s extra protection. I believe that gives us a clue on how to get behind the figurative mask that some students wear. We need to create a safe place for them. They need to know that we care about them as a person. We celebrate what they celebrate. We help them work through problems without getting frustrated ourselves. We lovingly correct them when they need correction. We work to become someone they can trust.
It is good to expand what we know about our student beyond the space they occupy in our classroom. Many times, I will talk with parents to get a better understanding of the child they see at home. It’s often not quite what I see at school. I want to know about their hobbies and enjoyments. Listening to lunch time conversations with their friends tells me a lot about what a child’s interests are. Getting to really know the child God created, building their trust in you, and granting them a safe place to go to school can help you see behind the mask a little better. Asking God to give you eyes to see each child as He sees them will also reveal their hidden faces.
Quite a few years ago, I was writing on the chalkboard, my back to the class, when one of my little first graders clambered up to me, gasping in her fright. I whirled around to see what was the matter and saw that a strange man had entered the open classroom door. He appeared to be an older man, but besides the fact that I had no idea who this person could be, something was wrong. The hands at his side and the legs did not match the Ronald Reagan head. They were much too youthful. My mother bear instincts rose to the surface and I hoarsely yelled, “Get out of here! You get out of here right now!” Immediately, the head mask was torn off and to my immense relief, it was only one of the older students in the school—a student with whom I had a very good relationship. While he hadn’t thought very far ahead, it had not been his intention to terrify me and my class. He was fairly contrite about it. Weak with relief, I admonished him, “Don’t you ever do that to me again!” Removing his mask brought the situation under control and revealed who the stranger was.
In many situations, if we take the time to see behind the mask our students present to us, we learn to know the real person and are able to speak to the real issues. May God give us wisdom to recognize who it is behind the mask.
CONTRIBUTOR: Carolyn Martin