“One of the most dedicated participants in the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, was an elderly Negro whom we affectionately called Mother Pollard. Although poverty-stricken and uneducated, she was amazingly intelligent and possessed a deep understanding of the meaning of the movement. After having walked for several weeks, she was asked if she were tired. With ungrammatical profundity, she answered, ‘My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.'” — Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love.
I’ve had a hard time figuring out what to do on MLK Day since I started teaching. It’s supposed to be a day to do (ideally) or think (at least) social justice. The trouble is, my feets is usually tired on this day. I think that my teaching adds a drip slop of mortar to the very clumsy and gorgeous wall of social justice. It does wear me out, though.
I’m tired, but with rest, I can keep going. Me not burning out, thus far, has something to do with my own choices, and a hell of a lot to do with people around me, some of whom don’t get the relief and happiness of seeing students sprint grow, as they occasionally do, or the glory of having people at parties affirm your virtuous career choice over hummus. (Which is very kind of them, don’t get me wrong.)
My first year teaching, an anonymous benefactor bought and delivered chairs, rugs, bookcases, and blinds to my public school classroom. What began as the set for a cut-rate Soviet public service announcement began to look more like a pleasant learning environment. Books by the dozens also appeared, the most popular of which is definitely Parenthood by Bill Cosby (it reads well in 30-minute bursts), and then Do Fish Drink Water? , which I haven’t read, so I don’t know if they do.
Teachers who mentored me found no question too ridiculous, made me feel safe enough to divulge the stupid things I had done and the stories of days I could not control my students, and, even more amazingly, transitioned me gently from treading-water novice to expected leader. They set a good example by maintaining a personal life, and managing stress with massages, laughter, and happy hours. Last but not least, I continue to use the gorgeous Crayola markers and gigantor roll of poster paper bequeathed to me.
Many people have bought me nice dinners, wonderful wine. People have taken me to the opera. Taken me on vacations and given me time and space to play and relax. Bought me presents that I needed and couldn’t afford to buy myself. My students were directly affected by those kindnesses. I have a richer life, and feel more generous, when other people are generous with me.
Other teachers (especially at my school) have shared my optimism, loss, frustration, and accomplishments. They have helped me laugh things off when I wanted to scream. We have sat in a room together silently, shocked by grief. I have been gently taken to task when I was asking for it, and patted on the back for being brave when I needed to be. I have been praised, and offered opportunities, wisdom, celebrations, and forgiveness.
Someone has volunteered to assemble an anthology of my students’ writing and artwork, with professional editing that makes them (and me) look good. Those books have become the texts for our poetry readings, and an important cultural touchstone for a school often lacking a yearbook or regular newspaper.
We lose too many of the people who know how to do the work of social justice and have the experience and wisdom to do it well because they lack support. Burnout for teachers and social workers is especially shocking. Resting your feet to regain your strength, or buying someone else a foot massage, is a good way to make sure more souls stay in fighting shape. So, thank you again.