Rumor Mill

I live in a really, REALLY small town and teach at an equally small school. It’s probably not surprising, then, that our area lives and breathes on gossip. Everyone knows everyone and most will say anything. Someone you don’t like? Somehow, only bad things about them get passed around. Love someone? You’ll defend them no matter what accusations come. It’s a very common thing, this gossip, and for the most part I find it absolutely sickening. Especially when the words of ADULTS finds a way to hurt my students.

Now, just because rumors are everywhere doesn’t necessarily mean they need to affect me, right? For the most part, I keep my head down or nod my head and I don’t really pay attention. It’s all petty and silly, and at the end of the day I only care about one thing: “Can I still teach my students?” Usually the answer is “yes” and I shrug off the gossip and just do my job. Because that’s what’s important. The rumor mill is a huge, ugly thing, and it’s hard to escape its shadow. But as long as I can still help my students reach their full potential, I don’t care how big or gross it is. I can manage it.

That stopped being true today.

You see, I have a student who stopped turning in work some time ago, and often only does the bare minimum to get by. This is not an uncommon occurrence in the teaching profession, so while I continued to do everything I could with the student, I didn’t really look at it as anything other than teenage angst. Until I learned that the student will work for subs and other teachers– just not me.

Perplexed, I pulled the child aside today and explained what I’d seen. I then asked the only question that made sense to me at the time: “Did I do something to anger or offend you?”

I’m not sure what I expected. A noncommittal response? A poor excuse? A backtrack? I don’t know. I realize, now, however, that I did not expect the response I got:

“Yes.”

I spoke with the student about what went wrong, and he answered honestly that he was still resentful over something that happened between his family and the school several months ago. Apparently, he had been told that I was the reason it all happened. This poor student has been holding a grudge against me for months, and it’s not even something I can try to fix, because I honestly had nothing to do with the original problem.

I don’t know if I’ve ever cried over something a student said before. But it wasn’t because I was hurt or because people had spoken poorly about me– it was because I truly feel like I’ve lost this student, and I don’t think the damage can be repaired.

The rumor mill. It is ugly and hurtful. I’ve had people hate me in the past. I’ve made more than a few enemies in the last 25 years, and I would not doubt that some of them say horrible things about me. That doesn’t bother me. There’s nothing that could be said that could keep me from still doing my job and living my life to the best of my ability. For the most part, I don’t care what people say about me behind my back, because it doesn’t hurt me and can’t hurt anyone else.

But now I have a student who has been actively turning away knowledge because of things that should have never made it into the classroom. And it specifically hurts because this student has always been one of my absolute favorites (I know teachers aren’t supposed to pick favorites, but it’s really hard not to. What’s important is whether or not we act upon it). Now he doesn’t trust me, and he probably never will. Everything I’ve said in the last several months– All the knowledge I’d wanted to impart and the ideas I’d wanted to express– have fallen on ears that, while once open and excited, are now deaf. And I don’t know how to unplug them.

There is nothing I can say or do that will free us from this rumor contraption that shadows all the world and spins its stupid, sickly dance. I must live for the rest of my life knowing that I lost this student… and I’ll never know if there was something else I could have done about it.

So, teachers (and people in general) I warn you now: Gossip is an ugly, ugly thing. It is something created specifically to bolster our friends and strike down our enemies– and it is incredibly effective at both. But we forget that the rumors that spread from our lips can move so much faster and be twisted so greatly to the point that, eventually, they’re not even recognizable, and they can never be recalled. While it is easy to say that “it doesn’t hurt anything” or “that person deserves to have people hate him/her,” do not forget that its spindly fingers are far-reaching, and even the most innocent bystanders may be caught and punctured by its claws.

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