Monday, June 8, 2009
From the Heart
I've been hearing from a number of former students on Facebook lately. It's one of the only things I like about it. That's another story. For now, I wanted to put this piece called "On Becoming a Teacher" here for a number of reasons. It is slated to be published in the digital magazine of the Bay Area Writing Project, when their new, improved site is up and running. But it occurs to me that more of its intended audience might find it here. A few of the beginning teachers I work with at Marylhurst University might benefit from seeing it here as well. Finally, it is mine, I own it; it's copyrighted, so it can live here to.
A background note: The theme of the issue was Thanks. I rattled it around my brain for a few days with not much success and then it hit me. Here is the result.
On Becoming a Teacher
We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude. ~Cynthia Ozick
I can’t thank them now. It’s not that easy. Too many other circumstances. It’s just not done that way. Would that I could easily step back, across the years whenever a thought strikes. It’s like a dream, the most spontaneous creation of the human mind, isn’t it? Spontaneity and dreams go together well. We needed both. I may not have shown enough appreciation at times, but I’ll never be accused of not being spontaneous enough… not dreaming enough.
Maybe I don’t need to thank them. I doubt that, but maybe, just maybe, they know. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that they saw some smudge of gratitude on my face. Especially after all those circumstances we could have never predicted: broken windows that stare down for years, lock downs, bomb threats, panic attacks, national and natural disasters, and sadly, the sudden demise of one of our own.
I’ve been so preoccupied with the thanks they gave to me that mine may have gone unnoticed. Oh, I know I used to do that awkward little applauding thing directed at them when they clapped for me. Who remembers that? Most of them probably never got to see the letters of recommendation to prospective universities, employers, or scholarship committees. That’s not what I’m talking about anyway. I mean wanting them to know that I truly appreciate all their efforts, their complexity, their patience, and their honesty. Hell, I even appreciate their dishonesty. It occurs to me now, after a little muddy water under the Broadway bridge, that I’ve learned much more from them than I could ever have imagined.
How do I thank 5000+ students over 30+ years for showing up—being there in every sense of the word? You’d think I’d have figured this one out by now. Even when I started showing that little four-minute video on the last day of each class, it was never enough. Tips For Living a Successful Life, or something cliché like that. Too much like those Chicken Soup platitudes, but funny at times. “Call your mother…Wave to children on a school bus… Wear sexy underwear under conservative attire…Take your dog to obedience school; you’ll both learn a lot… Like they really were in a position to take me seriously with so many yearbooks still unsigned.
I should have known their capacity for empathy from the Buckwheat incident. On the wall in the back of my classroom was a galaxy of faces from the 20th Century. Writers, artists, entertainers, politicians and athletes. Philosophers shared space with members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sometimes students would put their own pictures on the wall, smiling back in prom attire aside Woody Guthrie or Alice Walker. If a name like Roberto Clemente or Jean Toomer ever came up in class discussion, there they were, ready to make their presence felt. Pop culture icons like The Little Rascals enshrined next to Freud, Jung, Woody Allen or Toni Morrison. Kate or Frederic Chopin, in attendance, should their names be called. And then Buckwheat disappeared. It was such a wonderful picture too. Not one of those racist or studio poses, but William “Buckwheat” Thomas, my favorite Our Gang member. Gone on a Tuesday, I spoke with a subdued voice to all classes. “I’m saddened that someone felt the need to take this picture, but if I could just get it back, I’d be happy to provide another to whomever wants that one so badly.” I knew that the picture wasn’t coming back. I even found out a couple of days later what happened. Two students actually got in a fight over it. Torn and mutilated, it was last spotted in the boy’s P.E. locker room. I called off the search on Thursday and by Friday of that week I was the proud owner of no less than ten pictures of Buckwheat. They just kept appearing. Oh that beautiful color shot could never be replaced, but they gave me much more. Pictures from movie posters, calendars, video boxes, even card games…I got what I needed.
Sometimes they’d ambush me. Sofia Choi is a good example. She was that student who you knew got everything you had to give. The reality check. Too bad she rarely spoke in class discussions. But that International Relations class had some real pontificators. It just wasn’t her style. She made her best contributions in small groups. Missed nothing. Her’s was the class that studied international famine and became fascinated by coffee as a cash crop. I told them, if they were still interested by the end of the school year, we’d taste the world’s most expensive coffee—Jamaican Blue Mountain. They were.
All 30 plus students threw in a quarter a piece and I made up the difference for the $25.00 a pound luxury. Too bad that when tasting time finally arrived, all the Jamaican Blue Mountain available that year went to Japan. Small crop; they bought it all. We settled for Arabian Mocha Java. Excellent, but it wasn’t the same.
Then 10 years down the road, on the last day of school before Winter Break, Sofia appears in the doorway with a small basket of chocolate chip cookies in her hand. I’m stunned; it’s been a decade. She looks great. Probably finished with med school by now, or maybe a lawyer or high tech maven.
“I gotta run, but it’s nice to see you,” she whispers. “I felt like baking last night, and wanted to bring some cookies to a few of my old teachers. Have a great holiday.”
Then she’s gone. An hour later, I’m straightening up my classroom, bits of wrapping paper, foil balls in three colors from Hershey Kisses, Mrs. Paolini’s Christmas fudge, (fortunately I had both daughters as students) packing up all those papers and projects to grade over the break. I see the little basket of Sofia’s cookies and decide to sample one. The basket is heavier than it should be. Deeper too. Eleven cookies rest on some red napkins but something’s underneath. I lift the false bottom and come face to face with a brown bag and three little words: Jamaican Blue Mountain.
You see what I mean. The full impact doesn’t come until much later. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to go down. But I thought I was the only one planting the seeds. It’s just not fair. When something takes root later on they often contact me. Perhaps I’ve taken them for granted, assuming that when needed, big ideas will simply kick in like morning coffee or other forms of overdrive. But I can’t always find them so I have to get creative. A truth-teller once reminded me to embrace life’s mystery. That’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to say my piece and then trust that it’ll get where it needs to go.
To: All my (former) Students
From: B. Greene
If you and anyone in your immediate family was ever a student in one of my classes between the years 1973-2006 I have an important message for you.
Thank you for teaching me as much as I hoped to teach you. Thanks for setting the standards for learning about and impacting human lives so high. I want you all to know that you made my time in the classroom all that I hoped it would be. Yes, even those among you who drew blood, touched my last nerve, and occupied my mind too often at 3:00 a.m. Thanks for making me think on and off my feet, for pushing me past complacency, for taking the time to talk, write, anguish, conquer, and realize. Thanks for helping me get through those days when my face couldn’t lie…when flying beneath the radar of misguided administrators or misinformed parents was barely worth the risk. Thanks for dusting me off when the university researcher with 1/10 my experience smiled for weeks and then bashed with disdain.
I want you to know that like my family, my core values, and my ambitions, you are always with me. In my work now with beginning teachers I still call on you. You manage to find me in my time of need. Your wit and compassion, your stubborn neglect and your singular insight, have never abandoned me.
It has been a pleasure becoming educated together. Now when I enter discussions about what it means to educate a person, I feel empowered by my time with all of you. It is very easy for me to leave the one-dimensional world of assessments and outcomes, objectives and instructional design, and enter the realm of human potential. Because of you, I feel confident. I remain eternally grateful.
El Cerrito High School