Category Archives: students

I’m a Teacher, and I Don’t Want to Die With Your Child in a Tornado

Dave Sanders was the first teacher to haunt me. I would wager that, although you have forgotten him, many teachers could instantly tell you, “He died in Columbine. His students held up his pictures of his family members as he bled out on the floor.”

liviuLiviu Librescu’s name cannot be spoken with enough reverence: a Holocaust survivor, this professor chose to hold his Virginia Tech classroom’s door shut so his students could escape the raging gunman on the other side. Librescu died.

27 year-old Sandy Hook teacher Victoria Soto hid her small students in a cabinet and then faced down gunman Adam Lanza, telling him her kids were in the gym. Her students lived; their teacher died.

Third-grade teacher Jennifer Doan was pregnant when she heroically shielded her students with her body in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Seven of her twenty kids died. 35%. Gone.

I can tell you about these teachers–and others like them–because I, too, am a teacher. Like bankers, who keep up with new federal regulations, and chefs, who learn about the latest food trends, teachers are constantly educated, too. We don’t wile away our days making cutsey bulletin boards and singing songs about friendship: we do real work.

And a large part of that work is making sure your children are safe. And so we continually think about what we would be willing to sacrifice for your child.

Before Liviu Librescu’s death in 2007, very few American classrooms could be locked from the inside. Teachers, during lockdowns, had to go out into the hall and lock their classroom doors. Most of us who taught before 2007 did this–grabbed our keys at the principal’s urgent voice, dashed into the hall as quickly as possible, hurriedly locked our doors, and ducked back in, saying grateful prayers that we were okay, having done our required duties–and kept your children safe.

My husband, also a teacher, was pulled from his classroom several years ago and told, “There’s been a bomb threat . . . look around for bombs.” Your children? Safe.

At the same school, he was also told that, if there was a fire, he was to “go deep into the building to see if any children were left inside.” As a teacher–not a firefighter–he was expected to display this level of de facto heroism. To keep your children safe.

llI have hidden my autistic elementary school students in a bathroom while an angry man with a weapon roamed the campus. I have had a rib broken and rotator cuff torn by a student. I have been threatened by an angry, belt-wielding parent as I stepped between her and her child. I have dashed out of a prom carrying burning decorations. I have been brave for your kids.

Right now, though, I’m not being brave. I’m at home eating pimento cheese on Ritz crackers in my blue polka-dotted pajamas. School was called off early today because there was a chance of tornadic activity. So far, a drop of rain has not fallen, and our school system was ridiculed by a meteorologist on TV in the next major town.

That meteorologist has never been in a classroom. Taught 115 kids for 180 days. Pinned their Homecoming boutonnieres on; visited them in hospital rooms after football injuries and car wrecks; held their hands in funeral homes after their relatives died; videotaped their Promposals, having first been complicit in the hiding of the teddy bears and the Snickers bars. That weatherman has never been knee-deep in children.

I have been. I am.

For those of you who have not been, imagine this: you are single, but have a large brick home, and you are hosting a spend the night party for your son, Johnny. He has invited thirty friends, and they all said yes. Everyone is coming. You have assembled a bouncy-house, pre-ordered the pizza, and iced the homemade Power Rangers cake. You’ve rented a party bus to transport them to Chucky Cheese for a night of fun. Imagine, then, just fifteen hours before, you hear that a squall line with 60 MPH winds, large hail, thunderstorms, and perhaps tornadoes too, is likely headed your way.

Your next move, of course, is to cancel the party.

It’s a no brainer. If parents insisted on sending their kids before the storm hit, you would lock the doors and hide. You would not let those kids in your house because they might get hurt. You would cancel the bus and forfeit the deposit because who wants to be on a bus with children in a tornado??? Who would chance that? Who would make that gamble?

As a party host, you would assess the risk–you would think about your liability; you would consider how many things could go wrong. You would choose the wiser path.

Sure, a wind shift could result in you eating hypothetical cake alone under a sunny sky while people Facebooked about how foolish you were. However, the alternative hypothetical, with your son surrounded by seven of his best friends’ bodies and people still Facebooking about your idiocy–well, that’s too much to bear.

So, know this: of all the heroic teachers listed above–Sanders, Librescu, Soto, and Doan–only Doan could have possibly been spared her trauma. Her school system likely had two hours’ notice before the EF5 tornado flattened Plaza Towers Elementary.  They stayed.

I’m grateful I didn’t have to stay at work today in potentially dangerous conditions. Because I already knew about the pregnant teacher who tried to keep her students safe during a tornado.

Who broke her back and sternum.

Who lost seven students.

Who holds a baby in her arms who is named for the student who died–whom she felt die–beneath her palm as they lay together, crushed in the rubble.

Most teachers, like me, already knew about her. Now, you do.

Please, tell me again about how this weather day hurt you.

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213 Days: Waiting on a Faithful God

I am a rambly high school English teacher. Like my own high school teachers, I talk frankly about life’s joys and losses. I talk about hindsight and heartbreak. I preach constantly about choices. My students know the things I have survived. I tell them that it may someday be helpful to think, “Well, if Mrs. G survived that, I can, too.”
A few days ago, a successful, happily-married former student messaged me out of the blue. She  said, “If you ever need an anonymous guest post on your blog . . .It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, but I felt the need today . . . it goes along with the feel of your blog and what all your readers have seen . . . I’ve thought of you often while going through this.”
I was heartbroken by the honest words below. Read on for a reminder of a young mother’s heart–and then, in Paul Harvey fashion, read the rest of the story, and marvel at our ever-faithful God, who uses sorrow to transform. Who gives hope. Who reminds. 
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March 9:  The day, my baby should have been born, I thought I was over it.
After all, I have had 213 days to get over it,” but Im not.
30 weeks and 3 days ago I had to have what should have been my baby removed from my body.
Just a week prior, I had been told, “We cant find a fetus. Maybe youre not as far along as you thought.” I knew how far along I was; I knew exactly when I got pregnant eight weeks before because we had been trying for a few months already.
I will always remember that day.
I had started bleeding just a few days before my first appointment, so I was already worried that something was not right. After the nurse confirmed that my test was positive, we talked about what was to come over the next several months. I was handed packets of information on the hospital, medicines to take and not to take, what to expect at each appointment, etc.
We then went into the ultrasound room where the bubbly ultrasound technician let her trainee perform the sonogram. I was quickly reassured that my bleed was nothing to worry about–it was just a subchorionic hemorrhage that would need to be monitored. I was put on pelvic rest for two weeks. She then kept looking and looking, with an expressionless face.
Then the more experienced ultrasound tech took over. She also looked and looked, nothing. While my husband firmly held my hand through their silence, I never once looked at the monitor.
Theres a sac, but no fetus or heartbeat. Well give it a week to see if anything changes,they  finally told me.
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Im not a crier, but that day I cried and cried the entire long ride home. For more than an hour, I sobbed.
We hadn’t told our families that I was pregnant, so I put on a brave face and went to work, visited with family, went to family celebrations and to church, pretending everything was okay. It wasnt.
I spent hours on my phone, googling stories of other women who had positive outcomes to my same situation. There were some, but it still didnt help. I stayed on forums, talking with other women who had been in my shoes. I cried whenever I was alone.
It was the longest week of my life.

On my husband’s birthday, we returned to the doctor’s office. We went into the same ultrasound room. This time, the nurse and tech were not as chipper. More looking, nothing. Without much being said, I was escorted into another room where I waited on the doctor.
I knew.
She came in and advised me I had what is called a blighted ovum. For some reason, my body did not let this fetus form inside the present sac.
She told me I could “let my body take care of it itself” or have a dilation and curettage. Maybe Im weak because I was just ready for it to be over, but I was.
We had to call our parents and tell them simultaneously that I was pregnant and that I wouldnt be having a baby.
Early the next morning my mom, my husband and myself headed to the hospital for my outpatient D&C. Spontaneous abortion is the medical term for a miscarriage; I wasnt having an abortion. I didnt CHOOSE this. I wanted my baby. I had prayed for my baby. I had cried for my baby.
In just a couple of hours, I wasnt pregnant anymore. I was on my way home, cramping, nauseous, drowsy, emotionally numb. And not pregnant.
Over the next few weeks I experienced the same decrease in hormones I would have if I had delivered a beautiful baby. My hair started breaking; I cried for no reason; I had hot flashes; I bled.
But I didnt have a baby, and I wasnt pregnant anymore.

 

17349546_10211224690345791_877001159_oThree months: thats how long I was told to wait before tryingagain. I didnt listen; I wanted to get pregnant right away. I wanted a baby.

Every other day there was a new Facebook announcement from parents-to-be or a video of baby moving around in his mommys belly. I hated these people. I was bitter, believing that they didnt deserve to have the happiness of pregnancy if I couldnt.

I wanted to have morning sickness; I wanted to feel my baby move inside of me; I wanted to be decorating my babys nursery.

Month after month, test after test, still no positive.

And I messaged the author to call. She had to call. It had to be heard, not written–she had to hear the tears and the laughter–the mourning turned to joy–for herself
Because when I looked at the picture of my blighted ovum, the date I read was November 30, 1995. 
My only birthchild’s birthday?  November 30, 1999. 
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The 1,995 Day Wait: Thoughts on Classroom Validation

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There is a quote on my classroom wall from one of my former students. Days before he graduated, fully pleased, he popped his head in my room and asked, “Hey, Mrs. G, remember in ninth grade when you told us who wasn’t going to make it, and they didn’t?” Chuckling, he sauntered off.

That reads harsh, doesn’t it? Teachers aren’t supposed to tell kids, “You are going to end up a dropout. You are going to end up in prison. You are going to end up at the alternative school.” Teachers are supposed to inspire, shove children up the mountain, past their drug-abusing mothers, absent fathers, and abject poverty. Teachers are expected to make silk purses out of sows’ ears–every day.

In my classroom, generally, I don’t do that. I point out the obvious: you, dear child, are currently a sow’s ear. And then I say: wouldn’t you rather be a silk purse? I see so much silk in you.

These children, these hulking man-boys and affection-starved girls, want someone to see the silk. They want it so badly.


Teaching, in the first days of the year, is like a protracted meet-the-in-laws Sunday brunch. You don’t really know them, but you hope you’ll like each other because life is going to be hard if you don’t. You have no knowledge of their backgrounds because veteran teachers don’t warn each other–after all, perhaps you are the one teacher who can reach Little Johnny, and, if you’re not, well, you don’t want to know how bad things might become.

I am in that stage where, after fifteen days with them, I am starting to know my kids.

I am seeing the silk.

There is so much silk this year.

We are drawing lines with one another, having touchstone conversations, revisiting what we are doing well and what is unacceptable. Learning each other.

Today, I explained that they needed to remember that their behavior impacts one another. And more importantly, their behavior impacts others’ education.

I looked at my solid, quiet child, the child whose future is so bright. Nineteen years ago, he would not have caught my eye. I would not have known, really, that he was even there–the “designated hitters” in the classroom, the loud, knowledgeable kids, would have masked him. But now, I know he is one of the most important kids in the room, unknowingly carrying the spark of a different future.

I told my kids, “Look, H—– has an education to get. He is very smart, and he’s got important things to do. I can’t let you affect that.

Then, I looked at H—–. I said, “Has anybody ever told you that before?”

He said no.

He has sat in classrooms for eleven years. 1,995 days. And he has never been told he is smart.

(I suppose a “God help us” would be dramatic, but I really feel this merits one: God, help us.)


In 1990, when I first began teaching, I was the only tenth grade ELA teacher in a small school in an impoverished town. I taught every sophomore, whether we gelled or not. There was no teacher down the hall to swap with. And in one class, on my first day, a helpful child raised his hand and announced, “It’s like they put all the rejects and bad kids in one room.” It was misery.

(At least five of the boys from that classroom have been–or are now–in jail; one outlier became a preacher.)

One sunny afternoon, my dynamo of a college professor, Dr. Patsy Griffin, came to the high school. As the students milled around outdoors, she looked at one boy, who was certainly neither a scholar nor an acolyte, and said, “Come here.”

I was uneasy. She was touching his elbow. She said to him, “Let me see your eyes.”

She commanded me to look into his eyes. I did.

“Look,” she crowed, “He has such smart eyes.”

Oh, how he beamed.

She murmured to him about his eyes. Asked about his grades. Said she was surprised they were so low when he was obviously so smart, what with those intelligent eyes.

She left quickly, but that sixteen-year-old boy was never the same. Three minutes changed him. He’d heard he was smart. Perhaps he, too, had waited 1,900+ days for a “professional” to notice.


In my classroom, I do not spread adjectives and affirmations like feel-good fairy dust. My classroom is not a place where the students are called Mr. and Miss and referred to as scholars. It’s not a warm and fuzzy place at all.

But I tell my kids things like, “You are going to be a Coca-Cola Scholar, and I’m going to hand you that check on stage.” “You are going to go to Agnes Scott. I can see you at an all girls school. You would thrive there.””I think you would be a good hospital administrator. You are good at bossing people around.”

When I say things like that, hands shoot up around the room–“What do you see ME as?” “What do you think I’ll do?” They are desperate to hear of respectable futures, of  jobs, marriages and kids. Houses and pets.

There are other children, too. Kids whom I quietly call up to my desk, where I open my second drawer and shove aside some boxes before pulling out a letter. It’s a three page letter from an imprisoned former student who was like a son to me.

I tell them, “I think you might need to read this. I don’t show this to everyone. But this boy, well–like you–he was like a son to me. He even went on vacations with us. Shared a hotel room. Carried my baby’s diaper bag through Busch Gardens. He was like my son.”

They quietly read the long letter. In it, T— laments not moving with us to North Georgia. He wonders what his life would have been like if he had listened. Made better decisions. He talks about his son he won’t see.

He writes and writes and writes. After all, he has twenty years.

They read every word. I show them his photo. I tuck the letter away, telling them I can write to them in prison or in college. That I will write to them either way.


15943011_10210599751202703_648721813_oToday, in a show of authority–because we are still in that early jockeying–I made the kids be fairly silent. Some students were forced to do a dreaded study guide, while others did group projects, and a handful read independently.

I’d chosen a five part LA Times feature for my smart boy to read on his phone. He sat in my chair in the front of the room, reading every word aloud to himself in a low murmur. He read until the bell.

He turned to me as he left, said, “I will finish this tonight.” Strode out with purpose.

Day 1,995: The day he finally became what he’s been all along: smart.

God, help us.

 

Teachers Deserve Biscuits–and Respect

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I am a teacher. I know because I was given a Burger King biscuit today. And I got to wear jeans. And a link from ClassDojo popped up promising an inspirational video. And Google’s doodle of the day is related to teaching. It’s Teacher Appreciation Day, after all. A $1.29 biscuit, a cartoon crayon, and a three minute video should fill my empty tank right up.

I’m grateful for all these things. (I even had two biscuits.)

I live in the small town I grew up in. I was in the top five in my high school class in the late 1980s. The other four, all men, are now a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, and a retired Air Force officer. Me, I teach high school three miles from the one we attended, and I see two of the four men fairly often since their children attend our school.

These men are, by our community’s standards, well-off. They live in nice brick houses in desirable subdivisions and drive fairly new cars. They are not snobby or ostentatious. They are kind-hearted and are always genuinely glad to see me. The doctor has cared for my husband, a two-time cancer survivor, for over twelve years now. He is patient and thorough and calm, and my husband’s continued health is due in part to the excellent care this former classmate has given him. These men are great. Their success is not a problem at all.

The problem is this: when you read the sentence, “The five top graduates are now a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a teacher, and an Air Force officer,” you don’t want to be the teacher.

You don’t think, “Man, that must be some teacher.”

Your heart doesn’t immediately cry, “My son could become a teacher.”

You don’t instantly imagine the teacher’s nice car or nice house or–if we’re really being honest–nice anything.

Money and esteem, typical measures of American success, don’t apply to the teacher.

Money? I can’t earn more if I’m the best teacher in the school (I’m not). My students once were fourth in the state on a high-stakes test. My reward?  A certificate signed by the state school superintendent. Cashiers at Kohl’s earn fifty cents when a customer signs up for a credit card, but a teacher can’t expect something as gauche as money for being the fourth best in the entire state. I was recognized as a STAR teacher: a brilliant student who made a perfect score on the math portion of the SAT picked his English teacher as the most impactful educator he’d ever had. I got a padfolio, a pen, and lunch. 

I am, honestly, properly grateful for these awards. They’re more than many of my hard-working coworkers will ever see, and, really, I can do the noble teacher. I drive my 2004 Sienna and my teacher husband drives his 2000 Tacoma, and we don’t even THINK of newer cars. We live in a modest cinder block house in a good neighborhood. We’re happy enough. In our community, where the entire school system receives free breakfast and lunch, we see enough daily poverty to know to be seriously grateful for what we have. We appreciate our jobs’ benefits and our summers “off.” (We get up at 5:50 AM all school year. Do consider that.)

Esteem? A doctor can make you feel better, sometimes instantly. A lawyer can draw up legal documents and give sound advice. An engineer? Not only can he design bridges, but he can do hard math. And the Air Force? In a word: Jets. Of course these skilled people deserve societal esteem.

I can’t compete with jets. But I went sixteen years without a fight in my classroom.

I can’t do hard math. But I can talk a nervous teenage boy into telling his mother that she’s going to be a grandma.

Although I can’t draw up a legal document, I can give advice. I can talk to a cutter calmly. I can make an LGBT teen feel welcome and safe. I’ve helped suicidal and mentally ill kids reach out for counseling. After all my years in a public school classroom, there is little that startles me, and if I’m calm, my hurting kids usually are, too.

Certainly, I cannot give anyone medical help. But if a student needs to talk about the fact that Grandma died, I’m here. If she is struggling with a sick mom and an angry dad, I’m here. If a student writes about the pain of never having known his father, I’m here, and I’ll tell him the secret: a lot of his classmates haven’t met theirs, either.

I make students feel less alone every single day. I make the outside world seem welcoming and accessible. I remind them of college and scholarships and stable families–things that await them if they will just stay in school and relentlessly pursue the dream while perhaps living in a nightmare.

Why is this not esteemed? Our society is more impressed by a doctor’s ability to complete a two hour gallbladder removal than a teacher’s ability to keep thirty teens engaged and learning for the same two hours. We should recognize that classroom management is a skill set that is worth rewarding. The ability to unify very different students, to create lifelong bonds in just ninety days, to teach things like synecdoche while simultaneously competing with Snapchat–these are true talents. The men and women who possess these skills–the people that our children come home talking about day after day after day–merit something more than a Google doodle and a breakfast sandwich.

My younger daughter is a high school sophomore at the school where we teach. She is profoundly gifted; our older daughter, who is learning disabled, is a graduate of our school. Both girls shared three teachers, and now, discussing them at the kitchen table, their eyes shine as they chatter.”S—— is great!””E—— made learning fun–he was serious, but he joked around sometimes.” “H—– pretends to be mitochondria–it’s real great!” They laugh. These teachers were so much fun. They taught my very different daughters the same things: to be confident, hard-working learners. To be responsible. To dream and to pursue.

Teachers are the only professionals that children need in droves–for music and for math, for volleyball and Spanish. Every student usually has at least thirteen teachers, and perhaps as many as fifty-two. Children don’t need that many doctors or lawyers.

Students spend over 16,000 hours with teachers by their high school graduation. It’s astounding–years ago, my daughters knew nothing about medieval England, atomic mass, polynomials, or word processing. They have spent thousands of hours learning these and so many other things under the tutelage of professionals who wake up daily at dawn, who arrive at work early and stay late, who are inventive and compassionate and kind, who could make more money immediately in the private sector, but choose instead to help my daughters–and students like them–go forth.

I wish our society could see teachers’ skill, reward their merit, and esteem them for what they are: true professionals.

Societal respect–it’s the one thing that would always beat a biscuit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Separate and Away

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Today at 3:00, I officially made it to Spring Break.

On Wednesday, March 16, when my pregnant daughter’s baby was diagnosed with anencephaly, teaching high school until April 1st seemed an impossibility. I took Thursday off and drug myself into the high school that Friday, confessing to my boss, “We’re watching Ice Age [Dawn of the Dinosaurs]. It’s an epic. It has archetypes. And I’m here.”

I told my classes; they had expected me to return knowing the baby’s gender, not with the devastating news that she had a birth defect and would die. I didn’t have my speech right for my first class: it was rushed, and raw.  I told the next two classes, “You don’t have to do anything, or say anything. Even adults don’t know what to say or do.” They were saddened, but relieved to know that I wouldn’t expect them to turn into wise church mice. During the movie, when I forced myself to holler, “Watch, here I come!!” [at 1:04-1:19], a part of my annual teacher schtick that never fails to get chuckles, each class roared with laughter. It was true: that was SO Mrs. Grimes. Also true? If I was making them laugh, I was still in there, behind those bankrupt eyes.

My mission for the next ten days was to assemble a Mrs. Grimes over a brokenhearted Rachel. To wake up at 5:50 AM, go to work, pass out snacks and pencils, listen to boyfriend woes, cluck over jammed fingers, admire newly gained drivers’ licenses, confiscate cell phones, call parents, grade papers, write lesson plans: all while thinking, “My granddaughter’s skull does not have a top”–and not letting that thought show.

Of course, my class also was reading a Holocaust memoir. Five hours a day of torture. Dead babies. Starvation. Heartbreak. Never has a unit been wrapped up more quickly–fifty multiple choice questions later, we were done, fleeing Nazi Germany for JD Wetherell’s “The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant,” where nothing dies, not even the fish.

And we were safe. Somehow, between Day Two of my return, when nothing mattered, nothing at all, and Day Ten, things improved.  I can’t live this in front of them began to morph into a fragile, I am living this. In front of them.

 

Teachers have a permanent audience. All of the time. Go braless to Kroger? There will be ten witnesses. Wear a bikini on a beach 200 miles from home? A student will be there, too. Get pulled over for speeding? Every busybody in town will see.

We are constantly on stage, watched and evaluated.Let a teacher misspeak, and his career can be over in a moment. It’s fodder for the grapevine when teachers crack; it’s front page news when they abandon their morals. In the world of mass media, the very worst are the most newsworthy.

But whom do we, the average people, remember? The best teachers. The kindest.

I recall the day in second grade when Mrs. Rivenbark looked at my crooked ponytails–my father’s very best effort–and murmured, “Here, let me fix your hair before the others get here.” I recall how Mrs. James, my fifth grade teacher, realized that reading was my escape and celebrated each book I read. Later, when things at home worsened even further, my high school teachers became a trauma team focused solely upon my survival. I was in every club; I attended every weekend tournament; I somehow even became the basketball team’s manager. My teachers did anything to get me out of That House. (Mrs. Dillard and Mr. Fore allowed me in their own homes so often that now, at 46, I can still mentally walk through the rooms.) Surely, all of these teachers had better places to be and more worthy things to do; they had personal crises and families to focus upon.  But they never lost sight of the fact that I had to be saved.

My teachers saved me. Not the guidance counselors; not my extended family; not my church; not my best friends’ parents. These people helped, and helped greatly. But teachers pointed the way to the escape hatch. Unrelated, not as emotionally involved, they were able to convey, repeatedly: This stinks for you. I’m sorry. You can have a better, stable life. Daily, they presented me with a future. It wasn’t falsely bright, but it was Separate and Away–a livable space.

 

Twenty-seven years into the future they glimpsed, I am once again in an unlivable space. A space full of unknowns, with both death and joy close. Our small family hasn’t yet found room to breathe or think. Every TV is on, and every lap has a cat, and we are still adrift.

At school, however, we are anchored. Although none of us are sleeping much, here, we are functioning. In my classroom, the necessity of the facade is lessening; my students tell me I’m 80% back to normal. Perhaps after spring break, I’ll be myself.

Yesterday, as my husband and I approached the school, I remarked, “I’m almost happy.” It was, in that instant, true. School is once again a refuge. This place, where my students moo their answers like cows, draw me pictures of roses, show me home videos, and–on really good days–bring me Icees, this place and the people inside are cheering me up once more.

In case you’ve forgotten, schools are good places where decent people–both children and adults–are willing to daily help one another along. It’s not newsworthy, or even properly appreciated. Nevertheless, it’s done: every morning, students and teachers leave their homes and their troubles for a few hours and help each other to learn and to do, to cobble together survival and daydreams and goals: to create livable spaces and bearable futures.

Even out of heartbreak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On The Teaching of Kids

Something you may already know about English teachers: we procrastinate. We let the stacks of journal entries and essay tests grow high. We clean our refrigerators, organize drawers, bathe our dogs—anything to avoid all that grading. Common Core Standards, with their heavy emphasis on writing, have made the grading load even heavier.  (I once heard a student, while writing his third extended response of the week, mutter, “I ain’t did a worksheet since seventh grade.”)

I must be feeling masochistic this year: my kids have already written one essay and several journal entries, with another essay test planned for Monday; the stack of papers is quite undeniably large. (Worry not: my Schoology account is now set up, and trees will soon be saved.) So, tonight, after securing my requisites–Cherry Sprite, green Uniball pen, calico cat—I am finally ready to grade. To start hearing their stories, these 77 students.

They have only been mine for 900 minutes. 15 hours. But, already, it is there, in their sloppy handwriting and their short sentences: a desire to be heard. They tell me stories of shooting doves: “I had equality with Papa, just for a minute”; of first bike rides: “I called my dad that morning, back when I still liked him”; of raising their own money for school pictures: “I started singing, and people from all over placed money in the cup beside me”; of their pride in being the first in the family to make it to high school: “. . . even though to everyone else, it may be a small accomplishment.” It is marvelous, this early unravelling, this fragile trust.

For over a decade, I have read everything from research papers on artificial insemination of cows to first person narratives about favorite relatives shot dead in the streets of Miami. My students write of kisses behind the skating rink, the keys to their first trucks, and the impending deaths of their beloved grandparents: I bear witness to it all.

Many people lament the bureaucratization of education. They yell about Common Core and testing and teacher evaluations that are based on pseudo-science. And, yes, it is all a bunch of malarkey.

But I would like to remind my fellow teachers to look behind the malarkey. Behind the pile of Pearson’s money, behind the computers, behind the bubble sheets—there they are: our students.

They are ours. We get to claim them. We get to say things in the teachers’ lounge like, “My students just started Antigone.” We can tell people in the grocery store, “My students are so sweet this year.” At the Friday night football game, we can brag, “That’s my student who just scored.”

We bear the power of possession. Pearson doesn’t.

We teach them the power of kindness. Textbooks don’t.

We write the kind words on their journals of heartbreak. Governors don’t.

Because of us, they will flourish. They will learn kindness and respect.

Yes, we will write commentary in the language of the standard, scrawling “Good use of precise language [CCSS ELA-LITERACY WH 9-102.D], ” like the state school superintendent wants us to. Far more importantly, we will write things like, “I can’t wait to take my picture with you on your graduation day. We will be cheesin’ on that football field.” Surrounding this, we will take a few seconds to draw sloppy smiley faces. From across the room, when students see our notes, they will smile at us, glimpsing our shared future.

That’s our payment. We are paid in smiles, in hugs, in high-fives, and in shouts across gymnasiums. Sometimes, we are thronged in grocery stores and malls like minor celebrities, causing our own children to grouse, “Why do they like you so much?”

The answer, of course is simple: we are people. Not computers, bubble sheets, or multimillion dollar companies. We are rarities: adults who still truly care.

As such, we still have some power. We can ooh and aah over a quiet student’s poem. On Mondays, we can remember and comment upon interceptions at Friday football games. We can take the time to hang up a student’s artwork or chat about colleges. We can sneak hungry students crackers and Sprite.

The executives at Pearson, the governors of every state, the computer programmers and slick salespeople all have one thing in common: they were all taught in classrooms like ours by people like us.

And since they have forgotten, let’s remember. Because somebody should.

You’re a Teacher

I spend 1500 minutes a week standing in a room with kids. That’s 25 solid hours of face-to-face time, just me and teenagers. I have for sixteen years now. About 1,200 kids have heard me talking about what I am supposed to—like Antigone and Shakespearean sonnets—and things I’m not really supposed to, things that aren’t on the lesson plans. So far this year, I’ve dealt with children of alcoholics; children who are coping with serious illnesses—their own, and those of family members; students who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and students who were at the really wrong place at the really wrong time; students who cut because they can’t stand the pain; students who think that their lives are over at sixteen because that last bad decision they made was, after all, a very, very bad decision.

And I make my God-honest best effort every single day to be there, to wholly listen, to hear their stories and to look into their eyes because teachers did that for me. Frances Dillard sat and listened to me, a fourteen year old who was lost and drowning. She sat for days, and then for years. Howard Fore made me laugh; he stood up for me and defended me, and he gave Colin and the rest of the class a lecture entitled “Yes, I CAN Have a Favorite Student and Rachel CAN be it,” a speech that I have also given in my classroom, verbatim, about students who merit extra attention and praise. Edith Johnson, Bill Leiss,  Joe Haluski, Cyndi Dixon, Loutrell Harris, Coach Pike, Coach Ganas, and even Senora del Castillo were all a part of a long list of teachers who fed me as I walked, emotionally starving, through the halls of Waycross High.

It was only logical that I want to become them and to live professionally and emotionally in the best place I knew: school.

But what the legion of educators whom I so loved and admired didn’t warn me about was the heartbreak, hard and absolute, that surrounds teaching.  A student arrives at 8:00 AM whose beloved grandmother died just five hours before. There is a matter-of-fact discussion among kids whose fathers did not want them. A kid writes an essay about the three outfits he owns. Monday mornings, kids come in hungry enough to eat Ritz Carmelized Onion Crackers by the fistfuls, then search my cabinets for more.

There were no warnings about visiting hospitals, standing at the bedside after your first student is in a wreck, then your second . . . writing letters to distant jails when your first student is imprisoned, then your second . . .

Because the thing about teaching is your students are yours forever, for both the good and the bad. Yes, you will get to go to their weddings. You will rub their pregnant bellies at Wal-Mart and exclaim over their bright-eyed children at church. You’ll see pictures of your former students standing with their eyes agleam in places like Russia and New York and Saudi Arabia. You will look into the eyes of students who are firemen, Marines, linemen, video producers, professional athletes, and web designers, and you will feel pride that you didn’t know was possible.

But there will be other times when you will click on a status on Facebook that begins, “Pray for _____________; it’s really bad,” and your heart will leave you. It will just go. You will message the people who know how bad things are. And you will wait for them to tell you about how the telephone pole fell while your student was standing on it, or the car split in half with your student inside, or your student’s baby was born impossibly small.

You will hear how a fire tore through your student’s mobile home, killing her five year old daughter. And there are no words for this. There is nothing to say to this. There is no way to go from the power was out and a candle was in the bathroom to a child is dead. How can those simple facts add up to total and utter destruction?

You will do the only thing you can, hold your twenty year-old daughter in your lap, sob into her hair. You will pray as you drive to pick up your other daughter, and holding her hand at the red light, you’ll look at the moon, the same moon that is shining on your student’s hospital bed, and pray some more. You will think about leaving this heart-breaking job.

Then, you will see two out-of-place teens walking through a bank parking lot. Out of habit, you will pull over, hollering out the window, “Are you mine?” and they will beam. Then one will chuckle, “Not yet!” with a sparkle in his eye.

As you drive off, your daughter will tell you, “They say the tall one is on drugs. He’s young, just really tall.”

And you will find yourself thinking about him, and his future, and the part you can play in it, however mighty or miserable it may be.

After all, you’re a teacher.