(Reflections of a first year teacher. Written as part of my work with the Maryland Writing Project– hands down, the best professional development ever.)
“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”
~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My path to becoming a teacher was more a winding dirt road than a smooth expressway. I graduated from college with a degree in sociology and no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I decided to spend a year volunteering in an after-school program, living with eleven roommates, driving a fifteen passenger van around convoluted city streets and volunteering at the elementary school seven blocks from my house. I emerged from this experience with a good deal of youthful optimism intact, and decided to try my hand at being a teacher. I was neither trained nor certified, but I found myself in a program that promised to provide the classes that I needed to become certified (and earn a masters’ degree at the same time) if I agreed to work in a high-needs school while taking these classes. No problem, I thought. With my enthusiasm, my newly acquired teacher skills and a little bit of dream-love, I’d make it somehow.
One year later, I inherited my very own class for the first time. First graders, they were, and we were never at a loss for drama. The cast included L, all clinking plastic beads and fire, who challenged every request—sometimes by literally standing on her desk in defiance. There was T, the wolf, who would let out a surprisingly authentic howl at regular intervals. And we had two Js… one would dissolve into pathetic tears on the floor at the slightest provocation and the other would disrobe and run around the classroom, screaming without using any intelligible words. On that first day, my idealistic dream-love took a beating, and within a matter of weeks, it had all but evaporated.
Harsh. Dreadful. I continued to rise before the sun, driving an hour to keep my daily appointment with these perplexing little creatures. I continued to vacuum the carpet in my classroom and hang cheery artwork on the walls in an effort to make the place more conducive to learning. I continued to try the new lessons that I learned in teacher school, but instruction took a backseat to corralling small bodies and making sure that no one got hurt. I kept showing up, I kept trying, and I kept falling flat on my face. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I was honestly failing. My dream-love had taken me there, to that building, that room, those children. But what was the drive, the motivation, the persistence that kept me there? Sure, part of it was (in the words of a colleague), the desire not to “go out like a punk.” But there was more.
I had no choice but to dig a little deeper. Why are you standing on that desk? Maybe it’s because your mama just had another baby and you’re feeling like no one cares about you anymore. You need a voice. Why are you interrupting us with that ridiculous noise? Maybe it’s because you’re scared that the threats won’t be empty this time, and you really will be sent away. You need a safe place. Why are you sobbing on the floor over something so silly? Maybe it’s because no one came home last night and you had to scramble around, fighting brothers and roaches for breakfast. You need lunch. Why are you running around like that? Maybe it’s because you know that this new home still isn’t your forever home. You need a place to belong. Why am I pushing so hard when no one seems to notice or care? Maybe it’s because I want what I’m doing to matter, I need it to matter. I need a place to belong, too.
Though they aroused the whole range of human emotion in me, I had to admit that I loved those kids. Their neediness and negative behavior notwithstanding, I kept going back because I loved them. It was a harsh, dreadful thing, this love. A thing that kept me awake more nights than it allowed me restful slumber. A thing that haunted the edges of my mind constantly… as I drove, shopped, read, interacted with family and friends.
I don’t know how much my students learned that year—it was hardly an ideal learning environment. But they did notice, (and comment on) the fact that no matter how crazy things got, no matter how much stomping and crying and howling and screaming I endured, I always came back the next day. I do know that I learned a lot. I learned that listening means more than hearing spoken words. I learned that theory doesn’t always translate seamlessly into practice. I learned that failure doesn’t necessarily equal defeat. I learned that threats don’t work unless you fully intend to follow through. I learned that beauty and hope are not confined by racial or socioeconomic boundaries. I learned that I can’t change my students’ circumstances, but I can show them what respect and empathy and honest failure look like. And I learned that love is not the same as youthful zeal. My dream-love was dead. But the harsh, dreadful reality-love had begun to emerge. It was that reality-love—more a choice than an emotion—that kept me there, in the classroom, that year. And it was that reality-love that convinced me that, yes, maybe this teaching thing was for me.