Wolves

DP817868.jpgI have wolves.  I went to the cathedral on this, Dr. King’s day, and the lesson was about caring for your flock, which was the last thing I wanted to hear, as I want to quit my job, I have wolves.

The first half of my career I was told I was a good teacher, so I think I was.  I felt I was getting better and then that I was maintaining a strong and useful program of work, I taught other teachers, I presented at national conferences.

Then I spent most of a year arguing about if I needed the books I ordered in my classroom, if I was losing students’ papers and if I was bullying them by asking them to be quiet so we could start class.

I have been a “bad” teacher because my lessons were not engaging and I could not control my students, these two things being frequently connected.  I never aspired to be entertaining or intimidating, though, I only try to be thoughtful and trustworthy.

Some of us must be “bad” to keep the show going, so we know who to hiss at.

When I was told I was good, I was better.  This is the story of your life as an agreeable white girl, I know, people tell you are good and so you are.

If a kid refusing to sit down, pushing me, throwing things, and using profanity results in leaving class for a good while, I am a good teacher.  I can control my students.

I hate that word, anyway, it should be that kids find it easier to decide to be productive because the environment they are living in makes that the easiest choice.  It should be hard to be bad.

I work hard at putting myself back together.  Still, I haven’t been sleeping more than two hours at a stretch, and I have headaches.

On my way up to the cathedral, I heard the begging-on-the-subway speech five times.  Three times from the same guy, a big guy with a deep, lovely voice.  I changed cars because something was buzzing unbearably in my car, and the beggars change cars, too, so that’s why I heard that guy twice.  The third time, I guess, I took the train so far, probably 3/4 of its route, that was my fault, too: we overlapped again.

I thought, I know I don’t have change, I just did laundry.  And I didn’t want to give any money today.  I don’t want to give anything.  Not a thing.  Not to anyone.

Then I thought: this guy’s job is better than mine.  At least no one was jumping up and yelling at him or calling him names when he asked for what he wanted.  No one was throwing things at him.  Then I thought: goodness, that’s an offensive thought.

If I wasn’t a city teacher, someone people admire for toughness and virtue, who would I be?  Maybe no one would admire me, maybe I would not be likable at all, if, say, I was a person who left urban teaching, like everyone else I know.

Exaggeration: I know one person who has taught in urban schools a long time, and is still teaching in an urban school.  Most of us, almost all of us, get picked off by administrators, our own exhaustion, financial pressure.

How foolish it was for me to borrow thirty grand and then take the lowest-paying jobs in my field, over and over for ten years.  I really did that.  And all the money on my own office supplies and stuff for the kids— notecards, pens and pencils, treats (bribes).  I’m stingier than most teachers, honestly, but it still adds up.

For a long time, I felt I was making up for something, paying back my great public school education, paying back being white, for having a good family, for being loved.

People say, you’ve been on the front lines a long time, it’s okay to fall back.  Maybe nobody should do these hardest jobs, caretaking at our fringes, for a long time.  Maybe it just isn’t healthy, or can’t be healthy, right here, right now.

Friday I packed up all my stuff in front of the kids.  I was that gone. I was telling myself, I’ll protect you.  I won’t let anyone scream at you anymore.  I won’t let them disrespect you.

I must have scared them, by doing that, and by being gone the last two hours of the day.

I’ve spent the weekend thinking in flashes that of course I will go back, I’ll figure it out, as I have many times before, I’ll figure some way to limp forward, if not to march.

Things you would not, could not do, then you do.  Move to New York.  Kiss.

I became a city teacher because my parents divorced at the same time I learned about the civil rights movement in school.  That’s not fair, I thought, and it was all launched, tied up together.  It wasn’t a bad reason.  When I started teaching, though, I promised myself if I felt I was becoming lost, I would quit.  That doing good shouldn’t mean losing yourself.  That I wouldn’t teach somewhere kids threw things or where I felt unsafe.  But I do.  And I haven’t quit.

Along with “That’s not fair” and paying back my good fortune, there is also enjoying the weirdness of teenagers, their openness and fear together, their first shoots of adult life coming up, enjoying being a person they go to for help, and knowing the answers.

I think Dr. King would say, we are all sheep, but there are wolves in us.

I know they are sheep.  My meanest kid sneers, “She’s still here?” but there is a hint of relief mixed with his nastiness.  I hear it.

Image: Wolf, Anonymous, 17th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Feets

“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.