The idea was to spend no more than five minutes searching for each of my twelve advisees, so that when it was time to show them (privately) what I'd found, I could say, "And this (points to compromising picture) was only after five minutes of searching!"
Don't worry, it never got to that point.
I set out to search and I braced myself for shock and/or alarm (we're talking members of the teen species here). It was very easy to find them, especially the ones with unusual names, but finding potentially embarrassing stuff was a whole other matter. There wasn't anything to find except the usual and mostly-innocuous shared stuff of adolescent lives.
But as I was searching those first few minutes, reading through bad jokes, glancing quickly through pics of friends making faces, getting distracted by cute sleepy kitten videos, clicking through all those awkward selfies, something started happening.
I started seeing my students-- seeing them in ways they wanted others to see them, I could see hints of insecurities, their frustrations, their fears, and their aspirations. It was both humbling and deeply moving at the same time.
Jason, a student new to our school, is quite the artist with a gift for portraiture. He seems able to hone in on whatever it is about his subjects that reveal their humanity. I wanted to see more of his art than what was on his Tumblr.
Then there's Mona, whose anti-authority persona at school is tough as nails, and yet her Facebook stream was chock full of Buddhist quotes and messages of inspiration. "How you make others feel says a lot about yourself," says one of 'em. Indeed, Ms. Mona, indeed.
I got lost in Lena's joyous collection of photos, including that of her recent quinceañera (a rite of passage for Latina girls). She looks incredibly happy in each picture, surrounded by loving friends and family. There is so much pride in her heritage, and in all the pictures of celebrations, she's surrounded by children looking up at her, adoringly. She's shared with me how incredibly anxious she is about her struggles with reading and writing and getting into college. Now I can see a little more of that story; how she may be taking her family with her on that dream, and how she may fear letting them down should she fail. Suddenly, the role I play in her life takes on more weight and possibility. I can help her. I will.
One hundred students a year; that's one hundred beautifully-flawed, sad, joyous, lonely, witty, hopeful, and complex human beings under the same roof with me every day and yet, I don't know much about them aside from a few surface facts and their reading and writing needs. That's okay, they're teens and so they have secret lives that even their parents don't know about. I'm good with that, and honestly, I don't want to know everything.
But a lot of what they shared was public for a reason, and if there's any take-away from that ill-fated search for potentially-embarrassing photos, it's that (just like me, doing what I'm doing at this moment) they're all reaching out in the hope they'll be seen on their own terms. As a Humanities teacher, I can do more to make room for that in my classroom and at my school. I can and so I will.
I end with this last little find: It's what one student tweeted about the project we were doing (Pan-African music analysis):