Friday, December 28, 2007

Pressing Our Fingers In Clay

It's been my habit for many years, over the various blogs I've had, to post this essay around the close of the year and to follow it up with a sort of manifesto on the morning of the new year. This has been the most difficult year of my teaching career, the one they talk about that breaks a teacher and sends them off to other employment, which is why I've been so much absent from this blog. But it was never, NEVER the students that made me consider quitting. It was they who kept me going, and their faces, upon remembrance, that will get me back there come January.

Each year, I dedicate this to one student. This year I dedicate it to A, a Katrina victim who had been ill-served in her school, as we've discovered of so many of those kids coming out of New Orleans were.

So, this is for A, whom I've had two years now, and who stood up in class one day during a lengthy discussion and, in a very quiet but powerful voice, announced she was, for the rest of her life, going to fight stereotypes having to do with women, with large women, with African-American women, with large African-American women, and with the idea that "Your look means anything about who you are."


God, how we get our fingers in each other's clay. That's friendship, each playing the potter to see what shapes we can make of the other.
--Ray Bradbury*

I did not start out with the intention to be a teacher. I was going to be an actress. Maybe an author (I had some small success in that arena, actually). Possibly a veterinarian, and a sculptor in my spare time. But the matriarchs of my family were all teachers. My mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. When my father retired from the military he became a teacher too.

In hindsight it is possible I didn't have any real choice, but not because I wasn't given any. At a certain point in life I made a desultory jab at the business world with no success. Remembering summers spent pretending to be a teacher in my grandmother's classroom - the marvel of colored chalk, the smell of a new pack of construction paper - I felt that odd, tingling tug I suppose many people must feel when the unexpected purpose comes to swing around on the rusty hinges of the soul.

Teachers are never fully prepared for what they will encounter in the classroom. There are not enough student-teaching hours in a lifetime to ready one for the constant daily exposure to a clientele so reluctant and resistant as a student. The daunting arrival of new initiatives for education, poorly supported by equal financial enthusiasm, make public school teaching in this day and age a strange, almost apocalyptic landscape, the survivors of which are those who learn how to dumpster dive for useful left-overs, convince students to keep the caps on markers so they don't dry out, and turn a sheet of black poster paper into a working chalkboard.

Yet for all that, I was bestowed with a gift by those teachers that came before me, which makes me uniquely suited to benefit from teaching. Both parents and grandparents were immensely interested in me as a child and teenager, as an evolving human being. They listened to me. They indulged and encouraged several interests that have since fallen by the way-side. When I think back on my childhood and teen-hood, I am clearly able to see how very intrigued they were in watching me figure out the world, and getting a weekly, if not daily report. They bred this down into my blood, this amazing delight in the evolution of the young mind. Without this, there would be no purpose to teaching.

Media accounts of teen activity seldom paint a flattering portrait of American teens. Neither, quite honestly, do they themselves at times. Uncertain, frightened, fragile, brash, they can be cruel, retort defensively, and are driven by social maneuverings and politics that put the Borgias to shame. They are aware of this. Symbolic genocide of their kind in teen slasher flicks have made them callus to violence. They know this. Their schools are under-funded, and they lack substantial access to technology, which they recognize as their key to the future. They are able to speak about all the issues affecting them in their own elegant vernacular, all too often ignored by the very adults who claim to be representing their best interests. They know this too, and they shut down with a weary, frustrated slump to wait out the internment of forced silence and negative appraisal. All too often the spark of self-confidence dims in favor of the hunger for validation. Luckily, they seem to have boundless reserves of fire within them, not so easily extinguished. It is in those moments of rekindling that I find my certain sanctity.

There is a particularly cosmetic satisfaction to being a teacher that is widely recognized. Studying learning processes, composing a lesson plan that succeeds, seeing students make connections in their writing and their classroom responses, the well-oiled machinations of a successful classroom in which students are self-starting and engaged all contribute to the sense of well-being, of things well done.

What are more rarely spoken of in concrete terms are the rewards that emerge above and beyond that. Perhaps it is because we find ourselves at a loss, words run out, when we are suddenly, unexpectedly humbled by the trust that is placed in us when we have earned our students' respect; astonished by the power of a quiet voice to silence a noisy room; amazed by the first event of a single hand held up which draws all eyes forward. They listen for me. They watch for me. I didn't know this before now. There is great magic in these things, bestowed upon us only by the good graces of those we teach.

These are moments of significant purpose, exquisite clarity of self and the self's impact on others. Moments when we are able to put into play those abstract lessons learned from teachers of the past and find that small, sometimes invisible path to each student's heart, cling to it for a moment, and insert one whisper of validation in those world-weary ears. You matter. I know it in my bones. I don't say what isn't true.

We don't impact them all. We certainly aren't driven to teaching for the money or acclaim. But it is rumored, in whispered conferences among peers, we impact more than we know, or will ever know. Someday, we say, they will remember what happened here, and they will tell others.

And so we go looking for the switch, the button, the thread; the connection between ourselves and our subjects and their minds. The lack of resources easily falls away - why despise what we do not have? - and in its place lies what was most true all along. The greatest secret to teaching is simply the desire to watch students learn. We must want to see it occur as much as we may want material things, as much as we may want air. We could do this with sticks in mud if we had to, scratch it out on papyrus. As long as each day finds us another opportunity to tell them again what our best teachers told us in their own way: I see you. Your voice has shape. You do amazing things. The world got better when you came into it.

In the quietest, most perfect moments of teaching I realize this is true, not merely something to be said to placate a fragile adolescent ego. They do amazing things. Unfettered by any adult sense of caution or pretended humility they create words and art and music full of limitless passion: joy and despair and loathing and adoration. Their humor is boundless, their wit clever as any satirist. Their voices are the shape of the future. They see beyond what is to what might be, and pursue it with the fierce intent to make it true.

Watching them, I can see the future begin to take on form and purpose. Hearing them, I hear the echoes of my past self when I was enormous with meaning and ideas, perhaps some I've forgotten, or that have fallen by the wayside. I am reminded that there were no golden days of yore, that each day is now, that each moment is right now, that there is no better time to find an excuse to laugh, to ponder, to wonder how it all works and why, to tell the world what I think of it, to put my name, my mark, on the things that will be remembered.

I have learned this much about being a teacher: it is the secret promise of education that the teacher, in the end, will benefit more than the students. It is in the rarest moments of teaching that the teacher transcends their own limitations, lets go of their past, and evolves bit by bit into a being of worth. And so I carry on, pressing my fingers into what substance I am given, seeing what shapes will emerge, indelibly molded by the willing hands of those I encounter - knowing that someday the chalk will be so deep in the creases of my flesh I will seem made of clean, smooth clay.


*Bradbury, Ray. Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bantam Books, New York. 1962.


ms-teacher said...

Powerful and inspiring. Thanks for re-posting it.

Redkudu said...

Thank you! I'm glad you stopped by to read it.