Saturday, April 15, 2006

Philosophical Morning

Ten years ago, I was wrapping up my two-year contract teaching in a severely underfunded Louisiana school with AmeriCorps' Teach for America program. (At least, it was AmeriCorps back then. TFA may have lost its AmeriCorps funding due to some boneheaded federal budget cuts in the last couple of years or so.)

I once read a theory that our lives are like a clear pond of ice--when we reach a major decision-making point, a point where our lives could go in one direction or another, the ice splinters. We make our choice to follow the splinters in one direction, leaving the other behind forever. This particular theorist also asked what if we also leave behind alternate selves, who follow the splinters in the other direction. So every time we reach a turning point, we go one way, and an alternate self goes the other, living the life that might have been.

If that's the case, somewhere, another version of me is still teaching.

Don't get me wrong--teaching English in Louisiana was one of the hardest things I've ever done. For just about my entire first semester, I felt like someone had dropped me into the seventh circle of hell, and everyone there hated me. I'd walked into class spewing what was then unofficial TFA rhetoric: "All children can learn. They're all beautiful and just need someone to UNDERSTAND them. Let's all sit in a circle so our discussions can be more democratic. Peace, love, recycle."

Naturally, they ran over me like a zamboni.

I had 17- and 18-year-old crack dealers in my 7th-grade classroom who SO didn't care about lessons or homework or just being a little bit calm so other students could engage. I had even more 15- and 16-year-olds were so embarrassed to be left so far behind, they had to act out to save face. And to the others, I was an outsider. That particular community was racially polarized to the point of being shocking to a midwesterner like me, and I didn't understand why they regarded me with so much suspicions. To my black students, I was white--my Honduran half wasn't relevant--and as such, I was naturally assumed to be a vicious racist until I proved otherwise. On top of all that, the last TFA teacher who'd graced the school halls was one of those judgmental people who lectured students, parents, and other teachers about their egregious impacts on the environment and about homophobia--both terrific topics to engage in with one's students, but not in her reported shrill, hellfire-and-brimstone way. So my fellow teachers were looking at me with a wary eye, as well, waiting for me to drag a soap box into an inservice meeting and take them all to task for being so stupid as to not separate their garbage.

So yeah, that first semester sucked. And just to provide the cherry on my sundae of suffering, the principal--a whipsmart, extremely competent principal who had all the nurturing ability of a toadstool--periodically liked to walk into my room and say in her nasal Louisiana accent, "Ms. Tracy, why is it that your students are hanging from the ceiling fixtures when these same kids sit so quietly for Ms. Wiley across the way?"

"Because Ms. Wiley is seven-feet-tall, has been teaching in this community for a hundred years, and is so intimidating, I scramble into a line of students when she's patroling the halls!" I wanted to scream. But, acutely aware that the dangling, back-flipping students represented my personal failure as a teacher, I said nothing. I didn't even promise to do better, because at that point, I wasn't sure I could.

Having always been a stubborn sort, though, I physically could not bring myself to back out of that contract, and so, knowing I was stuck in that job until my two years were up or until the principal physically chucked me out, I worked myself into exhaustion trying to be better. I cut my long hair off over the winter holiday and bought a pair of trendy-yet-serious-looking glasses, all the better to peer over at students in that teacherly way--Bizarro Wonder Woman turning into frumpy, serious Diana Prince to get the job done. I poured over books on how to keep discipline in the classroom while still managing to teach imaginative lessons. I even discovered that if I morphed my midwestern-plus-two-years-in-Boston accent into the soft-yet-steely nasal drawl of a Louisiana matron, the kids responded SO much better when I asked them to sit down, or open their books, or stop trying to climb out the window and run screaming on the playground while the rest of us were engaged in grammar centers.

It was an important lesson for me. I'd always had a knack for teaching. When I was ten, I taught my friend Terri to play the piano. In high school, my handful of piano students actually grew proficient enough to have recitals. When I spent a summer in Honduras, I found it was infinitely easier to teach my cousins more English than it was for me to learn more Spanish. In college, I was the go-to tutor when freshmen had papers due--I'd even get calls at three in the morning to help them edit their papers (NOT write them over for them--just suggest how they could be better). I had thought I was a natural at teaching, and I might have been. What I didn't understand until it was nearly too late was that first you have to establish some sort of authority with your students--otherwise, they have no idea why they should trust you, learn from you, or even bother to squelch their natural exuberance to listen to what you have to teach them. And once you've done that, then you can start to have some real fun--and then it becomes realistic to shoot for a classroom environment in which all children really can learn.

By the end of my first semester, things had gotten better. And by the end of the school year, the work had paid off. Although I was still collapsing on my bed every Friday afternoon from sheer exhaustion, I actually liked my job. We did some cool lessons, had some great discussions, and even did an after-school play together that second semester. A few weeks into my second year, I loved my job.

Of course, I was still far from Super Teacher. Two years isn't enough to really grow into any job, and there is always room for a teacher to improve. I still had to fight my right-brained tendencies to foster paper explosions on my desk or to temporarily lose homework before grading it, and I had days where my lessons weren't as engaging as they might have been. I also still wonder if a handful of conversations with various students were turning points in their lives, where if I'd said the right thing, I could have prevented something awful. Did I make any sense to 12-year-old Lance when he asked me whether he should sleep with his girlfriend, and I explained why that wasn't the greatest idea in the world and why I had to tell his mom? Did I do the right thing when I turned over a note of Limeka's that I intercepted to her parents, after I read that she was thinking of "going all the way" with her boyfriend to stop him from pressuring her? Did Travis think about the potential life-ruining consequences I laid out for him when he opened his wallet and showed me the hundreds and hundreds of dollars inside that this smart, precious boy earned from selling drugs--rumor has it FOR HIS PARENTS? Could I have made a difference in those moments if I'd had more experience, been more eloquent, been a little smarter? Did my bumbling attempts sink in at all? Maybe it's arrogant to think I could have, but I still wonder.

Those things aside, we had a pretty decent year my second year. (Although I still wonder if my first-year students suffered any kind of horrible English deficiency because their first semester with me was pretty much a sinkhole.) We did a lot of in-class plays, wrote engaging stories, found fun ways to learn grammar rules in ways that would stick for that blasted standardized, annual LEAP test, and I came up with some great lesson plans, if I do say so myself. We had a lot of interesting discussions about race, about being a fish out of water, about what calling someone "dark" as an insult even if you're black yourself really means, about tolerance in general. We agreed as a group to abolish "dark" in that context, as well as the N-word, and any synonym of the word "fag." I still remember one student--who'd started the school year slinging homophobic slurs around like nobody's business--coming up to me and saying of another student, "You know that Donnie. I think he might be a little ... you know ... gay." (Donnie, at the time, had dressed up as a cheerleader for Halloween and was prancing around in his pleated skirt, doing air splits.) "Does that bother you, Jamarcus?" I asked in return. He thought for a moment. "Nah. You're right--we can't judge other people, and he's not hurting anyone." Jamarcus's parents were nice people, and I have no doubt he was also repeating words he'd heard at home as well as in my class, but still, I nearly did an aerial split myself that something I'd so often repeated in class had had an effect.

Sure, I still had a lot of growing to do as a teacher--years and years of growing before I had the authority and teaching ability of a Ms. Wiley. But I was getting there.

I had intended to keep on teaching--in Louisiana, at least for awhile, and always in schools that really needed committed teachers. But I met Jose, fell madly in love, got married, and moved to Washington state to be with him--a place where there was no shortage of teachers, particularly English teachers. Knowing that I couldn't easily get another job, I switched to magazine editing and freelance writing, and that's what I've been doing ever since. I love my job--I love pulling apart articles and putting them back together in a way that makes them stronger and more fitting for the whole. I love writing about issues that mean something to me. I love the environmental and social justice mission of the nonprofit for which I work--helping their efforts means my work still means something.

But I still think about going back to teaching. I'm not sure how likely that is. I have a great setup with the nonprofit--I work part-time, on a telecommuting basis, which means I have time for Maggie and Marin and time for writing (at least, a little). Teaching, for me, required a lot of energy, overtime, and financial resources. (One carton of paper for a YEAR? Bah!) But I can't help but wonder if I SHOULD be teaching. I have the will to go into the schools that need it most, and now I know how to survive in them and keep my professional pride intact. Do I owe it to myself to give it another go? Could I sacrifice the extra time I have with my daughters to do so?

I'm not sure. It's a question I consider all the time. It's fine to bemoan the sorry state of our school systems, but I actually have the experience to do something to help, in a small way.

Who knows what the future holds--I do know I won't go back to teaching until Jose retires from the Navy. And since that's a little less than two years away (huzzah!), I have some time to think about it.

I hope my alternate self that is still teaching still enjoys it.


Laura said...

Tracy, I'm about to start on TeachFirst (the equivalent of TFA in the UK) and found your post. It's so inspiring and sad a lot of things I needed to hear. That kids need authority, that they won't just love you if you understand (that only schmuck!) but also that one can get better after a nightmare term.

Thank you for writing this. It's been another inpsiration (as I'm sure you were to many of those kids).

Tracy Montoya said...

Laura, very best of luck with TeachFirst, and thanks for doing it. Please feel free to email if you have questions about doing better than I did your first semester! (Though I have been out of teaching for about a decade now. I'm sure you'll have plenty of great colleagues to bounce ideas off of, too.) To prevent spam, my email is on this web page:

Riccarla said...

Tracy, I hadn't realized that you had been a teacher, too. I got my emergency credential back in 1984 and taught for a whole semester before I took education classes (so I could get my clear credential.) What a shock my first day of class was! I listened to the professor and wondered if he had ever actually taught in a public school! His theories were great - in theory - but when I thought of the students I'd just taught, I realized he wouldn't last a day!
Since then I taught for 8 years in LAUSD (if you can teach in L.A., you can teach anywhere), 3 years in a private school (try this if you think public school is hard - dealing with parents who think they're paying you personally and their kids are supposed to pass), took a 4 year sabbatical to have Patrick and Vivien, and am now in my 6th year at a public high school in La Puente. I teach English and Drama. Our latest production is "Our Town". E-mail me and we can swap war stories. BTW, I'm a soldier's angel and I write to our brave folk in Iraq and Afghanistan. Glad your husband is back safe and sound.


Tracy Montoya said...

Riccarla, I can't believe you made it through that whole post! I bet you have a TON more horror stories than I amassed in my measly two years, but I'd love to hear them anytime. Break a leg with the play! (And thanks for sending care packages--I'm sure they're much appreciated.)

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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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