I’ve been away–not to an exotic place whose very name conjures forth images of mysterious mandarin nights, or spicy Mai Tai cocktails on some uncharted beach. No, for the past month, I simply spent most of my days at home, lounging on my porch, reading personal essays, and contemplating the year ahead. I did rejoin a gym and now exercise religiously. I am only four pounds away from my goal weight, and my neglected muscles have begun to reclaim their old juice. I also enrolled in a writing class, and I am determined to finish my book.
I have used the time away from school to consider where I am in this whole teaching business. Last year was such a mix of unexpected and planned results. I found out my AP English Language class doubled the College Board passing rate for my school, and 60% earned 2’s or better–such an impressive departure from past results. I discovered I had been removed from that class in June, but the recently released scores have secured my reinstatement. With one year under my belt, my instruction can only improve.
In truth, students from all my classes entered academic contests, received fancy acknowledgements, cash prizes, and championship trophies. I like to think they all improved their ability to write almost exactly what they feel. My debaters learned to think on their feet with a rapidity that surprised even me. But still I wonder if I did enough. I guess that just comes with the calling.
At times, I now admit I felt alone last year, more than any other I recall. My mother died thirteen months ago. I read some grief pamphlets and searched for remedies online. Everyone seemed to argue that mourning only eases over time. All I had to do, they claimed, was honor my memories and wait. I also miss my deceased dog and cat, and the comfort they once provided. I miss the students who graduated, and my colleagues who have moved on, voluntarily or otherwise.
Still, my students grew so much last year. I am trying to remember that. A beginning is almost upon me–and I have to be ready to commit my all anew. A friend I met at the gym calls it the “teacher zone.” He told me his brother was a teacher, and everyone in the family knew phone calls placed during the school year would be returned late, if at all.
I knew what he meant. “Teacher zone” is that place where student learning and exchange trumps everything else–even your own family sometimes. It is such an enormous responsibility. Our nation’s future depends, in part, on the things I do and say every class. How to make those moments exceed their weight is the linchpin question. And where does a teacher go for solace if some power-that-is decides you are the one retarding the advance?
I miss the kids, and I hope their summer filled them with fresh expectations, crisp dollars, and renewed confidence. I will also be teaching seniors this year. It is a first for me, and I look forward to new and familiar faces. One girl I have taught every year since she entered ninth grade has already phoned, telling me she will insist on being in my class again.
Feedback from students is so special because you can’t deceive them. They know who you are, and what you represent. They know when you are sure, and when you are still figuring out the best way to proceed. They know when the class is popping, and when it drags. They know whether to trust you or not with their secrets, especially on paper. They know to what extent you return their affection and respect.
On Monday, I start planning again. I finally learned two weeks ago–just after I returned from my biennial family reunion–that I will teach three different courses again. Two are old; one is new. I have lined up piles of sample syllabi on my desk and will begin to attack it next week. For now, I just want to hold onto the magic of summer; I find it such a healing place. While others argue weather and politics, I stroll through a park and fortify myself for the surprises to come. I visit museums and festivals, and I lose myself in the earthy scent of barbecue, or the tranquil sounds of music rising from a homemade instrument.
As I regather my strength and verve for the next ride, I work hard to recall the gains obtained. Teaching is never as simple as it seems. So many important things are not conveyed by the lesson alone, but also by the things you do in-between. As in all things, your walk, your countenance, and your “swag” also influence the way students consider your message.
Even though my physical classroom at school is moving again (for the fifth time in seven years), I will find a way to make the new one a welcoming destination for those who just sometimes need a safe place to get away. I understand the feeling, and I look forward to channeling that discomfort into inquiry. “Knowledge,” I will tell them, “is its own reward.”
Today, all those considerations made me think. Right after our college graduation, all the black students in my circle learned that one of us, a young lady from Akron, had chosen to become a teacher. We all scoffed at her decision and berated her personally. “Why would anyone waste money on an Ivy League education just to become a teacher?” we asked. We had all heard the adage about those who can, and those who teach.
Then, just a few June’s ago, my wife and I spotted her at a big college reunion hosted on the old campus where we once shimmied and bumped. The college extended such energy welcoming us back. It was the first reunion my wife and I had actually attended, and neither we, nor our children, could ignore the opulent tents, warm ceremony, and all-you-can-eat lobster buffets heralding the return of our class.
When I first saw the one who dared to teach, I wanted to run to her and proffer an explanation for my earlier harsh assessment. I was young and obstinate with a thirst for dollar signs in my eyes and a hunger for applause in my ears. How could I know the road she chose offered so much depth? We were, after all, Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth.” Our mission lay in law or medicine. Or maybe we would invent something magical, or run a ground-blazing enterprise. We all understood teaching was beneath us, unless it involved some form of tenure at a respected institution of higher learning, and, even then, distinction might be a stretch.
But, in the face of that perception, my former classmate chose elementary school as her battleground. How could I tell her now how brave she was? From the looks of her, the journey had been both challenging and inspiring. But when I finally stood next to her, I said nothing about the whispers I had fed so many years before. Instead, we spoke about the profession we now shared. We spoke about the children, our children, and the need for more soldiers of color on the front line. Then we hugged and promised to keep in touch, even as we knew we never would.
We had no need. We both know everything there is to know about the teacher zone. It is where we live and work, a place with too little pay, too much second-guessing, and more empathy, connection, and growth than any human being has a right to witness and share.
And that is what I have been doing for the past four weeks. I have been working hard to see beyond the inevitable clutter inherent in any human undertaking. I want to try to learn from whatever feedback I receive, however negative, while still keeping my aim squarely on the prize.