The power of a teacher’s gaze

What is the most important part of a teacher? 

What about her gaze?

Bullying starts in silence. In subtleties. It’s glances, murmurs, a passed note, a brushing-by in the hallway that’s a little too rough. Sometimes this is invisible to teachers, but not to Niña Lidiabeth. She could see that the other kids didn’t like the new first-grader: already una nerdita, overly eager to please and excel, cursed by a Panamanian accent after four years spent abroad for her father’s work. La Niña Lidiabeth protected her over-achieving charge just as silently and subtly. An authoritative glance. A well-placed word of support. A little chineo, a tiny singling-out: not enough to increase the ridicule, just enough to warn off the vultures. Those jaws of bullying, poised and threatening, never closed down on the little girl.

So small and precise, impeccably dressed, with large, beautiful earrings framing her face, la Niña was full of sayings: The lazy and the mean must do everything twice. Do it slowly, because we are in a rush. These truisms, such throwaways on someone else’s lips, were transformed by the steady gaze of la Niña Lidiabeth into standards that would shape her students for life. 

One day, she pressed a set of papers into the little girl’s hands and issued an order: run for student body president. “But Niña, no one even likes me!” “You’ll do it, and you’ll win.” What did she see, deep inside the girl who somehow won that election, whose voice now seemed to matter? 

The nerdita had never held a proper camera or learned to take a photo, but with Niña Lidiabeth, she learned more than math or reading. She learned the power of the gaze. What we choose to view. What we leave out of the shot, ignore, obscure. What we do with what we’ve seen. Will we look and leave it be, or will we, like the greatest of teachers, find a way to act?

Text by Katherine Stanley Obando, inspired by the photojournalist Mónica Quesada’s love for her teacher, Lidiabeth Leitón García. Is there a Costa Rican teacher who looms large in your mind? Tell us! Our weekly #MediaNaranja series this month is dedicated to teachers.