Teach your children well
Test them like hell
Till the last bell sounds to free you
Learn ten dozen names
And coach their games
Trying to sustain what it means to be you…
That’s the chorus to my latest song (with an ironic-but-grateful nod to CSN), a gift to my former fellow teachers heading back into the classrooms this week.
Or last week. Or last month. I had a former neighbor call me a week ago from Phoenix for homework help for her seventh-grade daughter. (My neighbor escaped communist Czechoslovakia in her teens and wasn’t feeling too confident about responding to an American teacher’s demands for a perfect Thesis Statement.) When I told the girl, “Wow, an essay in your first week back?” she informed me she’d been in school for a MONTH already.
So, kudos, y’all, students & teachers & exhausted parents alike. Rah! Go get ’em. Another school year begins.
Can you tell I’m feeling just a wee bit
I’ve heard it said there’s no such thing as an ex-addict. I’m pretty sure this applies to teachers as well. It’s a permanent condition. Our teacherly hormones are hard-wired to the rhythms of the school calendar. November, January, May, we feel the thickness of the universe closing in–phantoms of past grading periods. Summers, we relax. And around Labor Day, our pulse quickens once more.
I don’t have any slick photos or videos to snazz this post up with. (Well, I have tons of photos of past students, but I’m not about to violate their privacy like that.) Instead, I thought I’d toss out a few vignettes from 20 years in the classroom, each a little “window” into that world that most adults leave behind at age 18, except for the occasional parent conference and graduation ceremony.
Me: How was your Thanksgiving, Grant?* (*all names changed to protect identities)
Grant (an 11th grader): Awesome! We went to Canada to see my grandpa.
Me: Canada, wow. What part of Canada?
Grant: This place called Lopez Island.
Me: Umm…Grant, that’s not in Canada. I was on Lopez Island too. It’s in the U.S.
Grant: Really? But we watched Canadian television…
Miranda (a 10th grader): Oh my GOD, what is THAT???
Me: What, the thing in the cage?
Miranda: What IS it? It just moved!
Me: Miranda, that’s my chinchilla, Chiquita. She’s been there all year. Since the start of school.
Miranda. Whoa. I never noticed her before. (Note: this conversation took place in APRIL.)
Me: (after repeated, increasingly impatient requests for student to stop talking to his seatmate) John, shut UP. (yes, those never-to-be-spoken words did cross my lips)
John (12th grader repeating 10th grade English for 3rd time): YOU shut up.
John & I, out in the hallway, then had one of the most honest and sincere conversations about the importance of mutual respect that I’ve ever shared. I don’t remember the details, but you don’t need to hear them to know that sometimes gifts can come wrapped in the unlikeliest packaging.
These are the funny ones. Some vignettes are more poignant:
The Korean exchange student giving her oral report on How to Make Delicious Kimchee, followed immediately by the sixteen year-old American on What It Was Like To Have My Baby (now a two year-old).
“Steve” explaining his one-day-on, two-days-off pattern of attendance: “When my mom’s drunk, I have to watch my baby sister.”
“Brandon:” Why do I have to learn to write a f—ing essay? No offense, Ms. Wing. I just want to work on cars with my dad.
Me: I don’t know, Brandon. Sounds like a pretty good life to me.
I could go on, but right now I’m too busy getting lost in memories too layered or fleeting to share. I loved almost everything about teaching: the kids, the material, the rhythm of the year, the creative autonomy, the occasional treats in the staff room. I did NOT love faculty meetings, not being able to reach parents by phone, and grading essays on weekends. (My husband once told me, “I’d be more excited to see you without essays than without clothes.” Of course I put that line into my song.)
I walked away from teaching well before retirement age, because the timing was right for my husband and me. I’m avoiding the local school here, knowing that even occasional subbing would suck me right back into that happy/heartbreaking/exhausting/rewarding vortex when I am trying to stick to my new career as writer/baker.
But in September…I hear those sharpening pencils, and my heart beats a little faster.
What does back-to-school mean to you? Freedom, doubt, hope, dread? What memories does it conjure up for you? Let me hear!