Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Worker Bee me

You may have noticed that I didn't post much over the summer. I guess I was too busy sunning myself and reading in the hammock and pickling fresh okra and being bossed around by a very cute three-year-old dictator with "fishtails." (That's what she calls pigtails.) I was making indulgent lunches for the adults in the house because given the option, I will always choose to make and eat a hot meal. I was enjoying having BD home with us for the first summer ever.

The thing is, not being alone in a tiny house with four kids all summer put a little dent in my usual readiness to return to work. Add to that a room change plus a new and much harder schedule, and well...I just didn't want to do it. Couldn't I just stay home all the time? Haven't we won the lottery yet? I went around muttering those questions in between the litany of gross injustice: "More kids, less time, same material, less time to plan." It seemed I'd run all out of Pollyanna Sunshine just when I needed it most.

Week one was rough. I went to my week of teacher in-service and three of the kids in the household started their new schools. Did I mention that the six kids in this house started four new schools this year? At Monday's training we learned about the frequent random walk-throughs we could expect as often as twice a week in our classrooms. On Tuesday I worked registration while simultaneously de-funkifying my new (to me, but in fact not in any way resembling new) classroom from 8:00 in the morning until 8:30 at night, not counting a two-hour dinner break that involved forty minutes of driving home and back, while my family went to our Neighborhood Night Out without me. Less than twelve hours later I was at my district English training where I learned about the new, huge and multi-faceted "Capstone Experience" project my seniors all have to complete and that I, of course, will be completely responsible for. And so on. And so forth.

But then yesterday, I got to do my job. I taught four 90-minute classes back to back with only a half-hour break for lunch. (Three more minutes than last year!) I talked about supplies and class expectations and played "Two Truths and a Lie" with each class, wowing them with my big finish in which I go around the room and recite all of their names from memory. I was exhausted by the end but also invigorated. It reminded me that, oh yeah, I'm good at this. I can do this. I like these kids. A lot of them like me. Of course there was the kid who told me incredulously when I assigned the descriptive one-syllable word paragraph "It's the first day of school! We're not s'pose to do nothing the first day. I didn't even bring any paper." But there were also a lot of others who shook their heads at that kid and got eagerly to work and then volunteered to read what they'd written out loud. There was the girl who told me "I'm supposed to be in honors but I'm not leaving this class" and the boy who said "I was going to need this block for another class but I'm going to stay here. You seem like an interesting person." For every slack-jawed stare there were more kids smiling at me with wide-open faces and eyes that showed the unmistakable spark of engagement.

I still feel like once I get home, some internal switch flips to "conserve" and I sort of fold up in order to expend the least possible energy. I don't know how elementary teachers can survive being "on" all day every day. At least I know that eventually I'll have days when my students are writing or when I'm only there to facilitate their activities. Hopefully now that I have finally, finally finished the endless daily trips for additional, freshly requested school supplies that must be brought tomorrow, I can finish each day slightly less exhausted and my evening energy levels will balance out a little.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

In Defense of High School

Recently a friend said to me that he learned nothing in high school and that in general it is just a big waste of time. I hear people say this all the time. My husband will readily tell you that once he left the rigors of Catholic school in tenth grade, he never learned another thing. We both went to Kirby, where we met in drama class. That alone should make him think he was where he needed to be, right?

I think this is a bunch of bullshit, people saying they learned nothing in high school. I learned plenty. I learned about Willa Cather and Hemingway and Sylvia Plath, who became my teenage idol. I read "Our Town" and Joyce's "The Dead" and learned about epiphanies. I read the Spoon River Anthology and was asked to write a poem in the style of Edgar Lee Masters, which I found I was able to do quite easily and well. I read about the Transcendentalists and the oversoul and Civil Disobedience and the importance of self reliance. I learned about the basics of economics, opportunity cost and the law of diminishing returns. I learned passable French that I can still speak and read surprisingly well. I gained a fundamental understanding of human genetics and of biology in general. I learned when to say "lay" and when to say "lie" and how to make your junior English teacher laugh and blush during that lesson. I learned about Jung and universal symbols and about Freud and how sometimes the experts turn out to be completely insane but also sort of right about things in a wrong kind of way. I learned to kick a Geometry proof's ass, which is a good introduction to applied logic and which apparently a lot of people can't do.

Maybe you think I'm just listing random crap, but in fact I could tell you the teacher's name that corresponds to each example I gave. I can remember the discussions about Emerson and Thoreau especially well. I'm sure there's plenty that didn't stick with me, and I'm not claiming that my time was never wasted, but overall it was a worthwhile experience. Maybe that's not true for everyone, but I suspect it's true for a lot of people who claim that high school was terrible and taught them nothing. I'm sure there are kids who are better served in other settings. There are very intelligent kids who could wise up and go get their GED and move on to college, and there's nothing wrong with that choice if the traditional path isn't working. But I still argue that there is some value in a classical education, and that a decent-to-excellent version of that can be found in public schools in every city and district in the country.

I guess I take this particular staple of the cynical hipster canon personally because I am a high school teacher. Duh, right? But the idea that I am knowingly and willfully wasting people's time is so insulting because that is something I've given very specific thought to. Early in my teaching career, I had a student in the eighth grade named Jason Carson. He was smart and charismatic and the girls thought he was dreamy. He kind of attached himself to me, and in the remaining years of high school, (it was a 7-12 school) he would often return to my classroom to visit. At times I had to fuss at him and push him away so he would go to his actual classes. When Jason was a senior, he went to visit the college he was planning to attend, where his brother was already a student. Since his brother would be staying at school, they took separate cars. His brother said that one minute he saw Jason in the rear view mirror following him, and the next he was gone. He rolled his car in a ditch and was killed instantly. That was almost ten years ago and I still think about Jason at least once a week. My eyes fill with tears every single time because as much as the potential and promise of his life was wasted by his death, what was most devastating to me at the time was the possibility that I had wasted even one minute of the little time he had. I was a new teacher with a class full of unruly middle-schoolers I'd inherited mid-year after a series of subs. My intentions were good but I'm sure I didn't know what I was doing. What I took away from that is the knowledge that no matter what new test comes along for the administration to hang over our heads or what new crisis the media decides to blame on schools and teachers, my responsibility is to those kids. That doesn't mean I'm at my best every day or that I can't do better, but it means that I think of my students as individuals whose time is valuable. It means that sometimes I remind myself that I can live in a world where those kids might grow up to use incorrect punctuation, but not one in which they are cruel and intolerant and willfully ignorant. It means that I know who I really work for. And I'm not there to waste my employers' time.