Things That You Love Should Be Things That You Do

I am right smack in the middle of my thirtieth year. Which is to say I’m 29. Which is to say my legs look different, somehow, around the knees. Which is to say I paint my nails bold colors and wear sensible shoes. Which is to say I’ve made some decisions.

I began teaching when I was 22. I was pregnant. I needed a job. My husband at the time was cutting grass. We needed health insurance that would not consider pregnancy a “pre-existing condition.” I was an emergency hire and thankful.

Cut to eight years later. I’ve been writing off and on throughout my teaching career. What brought me to teaching was the writing, the stories, the humanity. I am no hero–I’ve never had any grand notions of sacrificing myself for students who need saving. And yet. There are times when what we do within these four cinder-block walls drives a child to put words on a page that move me to tears. Visceral. Language you can smell, language you can walk around inside of.

I’ve always been driven by story. Always. When I was a little girl, I lived in my grandmother’s stories. She told beautiful stories about her twin sisters, Marie and Larue, born so small you could put a tea cup over their heads, slept side-by-side with a heated brick between them, tucked into my great-grandmother’s dresser drawer in the dead of a Tennessee winter. I listened to sermons for the stories that started them. I watched my father tell stories with his hands, loud-laughing at his own words to patients, to relatives, to the dinner table, who laughed along with him. My whole life.

In many ways, quitting teaching and starting a whole new career feels a lot like getting divorced. It’s a loss, but there’s a sense of rightness about it. There’s things I’ll miss, sure. My colleagues, my students, people. I’ll miss the people. It’s hard to miss any institution.

There was this moment. Right after my ex-husband moved out. When I found myself at home alone on, say, a Tuesday. And it was so peaceful. I vacuumed. The sun was pouring through the leaves beyond my windows. Choices: a cup of coffee, a load of laundry, a phone call.

In moments like this, I can do with my life what writers do with words to a page: world building, shaping a story, making & learning characters. In order to do this, you have to know what you want. It should come as no surprise that what I want is a life full of people and stories. All kinds of people. All kinds of stories. I want a life full.

Already I’ve been surprised by the places we’ve found stories in our new work. There’s so much beauty in people. In truth. I’ve fallen in love with everything local. I’ve fallen in love with hands that make things, with people who stop living one dream to pursue another, truer one. My favorite stories are the ones where people become successful doing something you never dreamed a person could be successful at. The videos we’ve made in my new life’s work, Room Eleven Media, tell these kinds of stories.

This, my thirtieth year, is the year of jumping off a cliff and building my wings on the way down. It’s a year of risk, a year of choice.

I have ten weeks left of teaching. A balancing act. I’m finding myself loving my students so much. I’m loving my colleagues for the coffee mugs they drink from, for their words of encouragement, for their voices coming through my wall, “You can do this. You can. Try. Come on.”

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The Fall

[This is the third in a series of posts about my first year of teaching. If you would like to read more, please click on “Becoming Ms. Reed” under Categories. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people in this story.]

In the mornings, students waited outside for the bell to ring. Feet hanging over a brick wall, loud-talking, and smacking on “breakfast pizza,” yesterday’s left-overs from lunch. It made me nervous to walk through them from the car to the school. So much laughing and fondling. Their breath hung in the air between them, collecting in the chill of morning. Everything about these students–their language, their postures–grated against my raising of restraint, respect, and privilege. The students’ catcalls that followed me into the building left me speechless, any retort or Smart Words that might stop them had been pre-conditioned to stop short in my throat where they stuck like glue dripping down into my gut. Powerless. Defenseless. Victim. These are the words I knew. These are the words I spoke when I came home from work each evening to ears that couldn’t possibly understand.

The days melted together. First block broke my spirit and my teaching and energy waned from that class on, decaying into each day’s end. Favorite excuse for getting out of class? “I need to step out. Gotta break wind. You know.” What was I supposed to say? No? I found myself desperately clinging to lessons about grammar and literature so stale I could hardly suffer them myself. Curriculum. Worksheets. Coverage. Maybe do some art to make the room look pretty. (My colleagues were fond of poking fun at how colorful and bright my room was with all the stuff on the walls. They always walked in with their hands shielding their eyes, feigning blindness.)

I quickly discovered that class was much more bearable if it was held outside. This was true for me and for the students. The fresh air was enough to put off the snickering and gossip of the fight that broke out at the Piggly Wiggly between two of the girls in my fourth block class; enough to make me forget the rumor I had heard that each girl had armed herself with a razor in her mouth; enough to fill my lungs, which were being encroached upon by my breeched baby’s head more and more everyday; enough to remind me that these were people I was teaching. Bringing the class outside felt more humane than anything else I did as a teacher that semester.

Unspoken: Here, see the sun? See the grass? This is what we were made for. This is what the poets are writing about. We can all enjoy this. This is what makes us human. Me. And you. This is what we have in common.

There was a homeless pit bull with ribs sharp and jutting out at weird angles. Hollow. Fur matted. Its face was scary despite its weakness. Slack-jawed, tongue hanging dry, its walk was slow, always careening toward me it seemed. The dog elicited all sorts of jeering and laughing from the kids. My fear of the dog was transparent. Some days the students played to my fear, taunting the dog to come over. Other days, they shooed it away. I never knew the kind of day it would be.

What I knew for sure, everyday, was that the drive would be a kind of relief–a sweet purgatory between two worlds, two institutions, I struggled to fit into: school and marriage. School is the one that remains.

Today, it’s spring outside of my classroom window where I’m writing and the kids are at lunch. When they come back, we’re headed outside to read The Odyssey. I’ve taught this story every year since that first fall. It’s my favorite thing to teach because it’s about being human. Today we’re reading my favorite part: when the Cyclops gets his eye gouged out by Nohbdy. “Now comes the weird upon me,” he roars. I love the Greeks and their deep respect for fate.

In Remembrance of Snow Days

© 2010 David Parker

Holding a cup of coffee in my hands, I’m standing in the hallway to greet the students as they come in. As the girl with red ribbons braided into her hair hops through the door, her blue tu-tu flouncing around her, the warmth of my coffee mug feels like it’s coming from another time and place. The girl announces to the class that she’s dressed in red, white, and blue to celebrate the addition of a new ride at Six Flags called The Dare Devil Dive in the USA section of the park. As she describes the ride, the way it pulls you to the top, stops you, and then sends you hurtling down straight into the ground, I’m thinking that this ride sounds a lot like my re-entry into the classroom after so many snow days. And I’m thinking that my coffee and its heat in my hands is a piece of those snow days lingering the way good food smells linger in the house after I’ve prepared and devoured something especially yummy like grilled cheese with basil and tomato soup.

Don’t Smile Before Christmas

[This is the second in a series of posts about my first year of teaching. If you would like to read more, please click on “Becoming Ms. Reed” under Categories. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people in this story.]

Don’t smile before Christmas. Don’t make too much eye contact. Rules. You need rules. Make them think you’re crazy: Slap a stack of papers off of your desk and then yell at one of the students to pick them up. If there’s a fight, take a step back and say Stop. You are the one in charge. YOU are. Not them. Lock up your purse.

In the week before school started, I received lots of unsolicited advice from my colleagues who, ever since I threw up in the tip jar at Subway, loved to reference my “delicate condition.” As in, “Oh, you can’t ask Miss Reed to do that! Not in her delicate condition.” I was a 22-year-old white girl who had never worked a day in her life. I had just graduated from college. I drove a fancy new car. My whole life had been handed to me. If I had to work with my 22-year-old self, I would hate her. Thankfully, my colleagues were more gracious than I would have been.

On the first day of school, the first student to shamble through my door was Trevonte Harris. He smiled when he saw me, and I, being a human (and a Southern one at that) broke the first piece of advice I’d been given and smiled back. Then he asked me the first question I would be asked as a teacher. “So! MISS Reed, huh? You married? Kids say you pregnant. You married?” Before I could answer, Demarcus had come up behind him. “Yo, you Miss Reed?” And then three young women joined us: LaShonda, Janecia, and Star. All looking at me. We were crowding the door. Everyone was looking at me. They were waving over their friends. I slipped out of the group, mumbling something about homeroom, and into the hallway so packed with students that I couldn’t see any teachers. Panic.

The shrill sound of the bell was met with the heavy closing of doors. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! All the way down the hall. Then quiet, save for the rustling of a dozen or so students shuffling to their respective classes. A boy and girl kissed on the mouth before separating to join their homerooms across the hall from one another. I turned to walk into my own class. No one acknowledged me. I managed to take roll. The announcements came on. When our principal started speaking, I heard Bitch! emitted from a young man who was too large to sit in a desk. He was sitting in a chair at the front of the class with his head rested on his chest in a way that made him look like a fat bird sitting on her nest. I said, “Excuse me?” He stood up, reeking of smoke, and looked down at me. “I SAID Bitch!” He said the word like he was spitting, but his face registered no anger or resentment. He said it like it was a fact. I snapped back that he was headed for a referral. “Well let me just go then.” And off he went, sauntering down the hallway before I could even remember where I’d put my referrals. I scampered down the hallway to my friend’s class. I could hear the class falling out behind me as I slipped through the door. Peels of laughter and the echo of stomping feet followed me down the hall to Tanesha’s room. I asked her what to do. “Write his butt up!”

By the time I made it back to my room, the bell was ringing. First period. I was very proud of my writing prompt on the board. Write about your summer vacation. Students came in talking, sat down with their friends. I can’t remember if anyone spoke to me. What I do remember is that no one had any paper and no one had anything to write with. My mouth was hanging open. “How did you not bring something to write with on the first day of school?!” They weren’t expecting to do work the first day. Once everyone got something to write on, most of them wrote one word: sleep. Going over classroom procedures was about as successful as the writing prompt. I talked for most of the rest of class since no one had anything to share from the “writing exercise,” so by the end of the day, I had watched nearly 70 kids sleep with their eyes open and I was forced to confront a hard truth: I didn’t know these kids. I got their jokes only well enough to understand that they were mostly about me. “Hey, Ms. Reed. Is your daddy a window?” I had never heard students talk to teachers like this. I had never seen kids come to school without backpacks, without paper or pencil. By the end of the day, the trash can was filled with all of my brightly colored handouts balled up or ripped in half.

The Calling

[This is the first in a series of posts about my first year of teaching. If you would like to read more, please click on “Becoming Ms. Reed” under Categories.]

The day began like every other that summer: I woke up wrestling with nausea and lost. Twice. However, unlike every other day, this one was marked by a job interview with a school board in very rural Alabama. After heaving what was left of my first-trimester stomach lining into the kitchen sink, I wriggled into a butter-yellow pencil skirt and a freshly-starched white button down, grabbed an apple and ran down the three flights of stairs adjoined to our pitiful excise of an apartment building, careful not to look through the spaces between the stairs where the ground so far below made my jaw tingle. Ten minutes later, whizzing down a country road I’d never known, captivated by the landscape of vivid Alabama green blurring by my window, I was already pining for the commute through foggy fall mornings to a school where I would really make a difference.

Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was nerves, maybe it was the hormones, but about halfway into the drive, something about the texture of the apple I’d been eating caused me to pull over and retch on the side of the road beneath a romantic canopy of trees. There was nothing cool to lean against and there was no one I could call. I had no choice but to shamble back into the car, my fresh butter-yellow skirt smeared with red clay, and attempt to collect myself for the interview. Any illusions I’d had of myself exhibiting grace and mental composure I left there, mixed with spit on the side of the road. From this point on, my memory of this day is marked by extreme heat and profuse sweating.

And so it was that I found myself sweating on the front steps of the Chambers County Board of Education. Despite my lack of experience in education beyond my years as a student, I was confident–it was the kind of confident only a young person can feel as it’s the kind of confidence that comes from never having failed at anything significant before and never having endured much of anything challenging (that is of course, if you don’t count breaking the news to my parents that their unwed daughter was going to have a baby). This kind of confidence might also come from having very little to lose.

First impression: This place is a dump. The city of Lafayette reminded me of Miss Havisham’s wedding gown. Its old, lacy Victorian homes were depressing—they were falling in on themselves, old furniture stacked to the porch ceilings and prickly signs nailed to their trees. NO TRESPASSING. The Board of Education was nestled among those houses like Miss Havisham’s rotted wedding cake on her banquet table. To the right of the Board there was a grassy hill that led up to the high school. As I began to climb the steps, I was very aware of people sitting on their porches across the street. Watching me. I became aware of how bright and clean and pressed my outfit was in comparison with my surroundings. What was I doing here?

The front door felt greasy and, as I pulled it open, seemed to stick the way the soles of my feet do when I’ve just stepped in gum. The air inside felt thick and humid, like walking into an open mouth. The large black woman seated behind the desk to my left directed me to wait in a plastic chair along the wall. More sweating. By this time I’m sure the shirt under my arms was completely transparent. A man with a preacher’s face and a politician’s smile led me to a room where I wrote an essay about what, I can’t remember, but I accomplished it and placed it back in his outstretched hand with the same kind of knowing satisfaction that I’ve always had upon turning in work to my teachers. We went into his office where he conducted an interview alongside the principal from the high school at the top of the hill. Throughout the interview, most of my attention was directed towards the amount of perspiration that was accumulating on my upper lip and how long it had been since I last licked it off. Since I’ve always been able to talk my way into or out of anything, answering questions came naturally.

There were two concepts that have stuck in my mind since that interview: “The Age of Accountability” and “Highly Qualified.” The first came from a question that the principal asked me. She was asking what kinds of things I would do in my classroom since we are now living in the Age of Accountability. I assumed that this had to do with holding students accountable for their work. In the past six years, I’ve discovered that this has more to do with teachers covering their asses than with teaching or learning. THe other term, “Highly Qualified,” turned out to be what I was. Me. The girl with NO background in education and no prior work experience in anything. Apparently, a certain number of courses in English (Literature) made me achieve “Highly Qualified” status as an educator.

So I got the job. And the signing bonus. Signing bonus? Signing bonus. $3,000. Or something like that. Because it was July and their 9th and 10th grade English students (99% of whom were receiving free or reduced government lunch, 99% of whom were minority) desperately needed a teacher. And the job came with benefits. Benefits! Health insurance! My feet were singing and dancing their way out of that office, down the cracked front steps, and I was practically waltzing in the streets across from those people sitting on their front porches looking deflated and indifferent. Hopped up on adrenalin, I called everyone I knew and practically vibrated home. I was going to be a teacher! I was going to make a difference.

Faith and Baby Steps

© 2010 David Parker

About a month ago I met Faith, and ever since, I’ve been carrying it around like a new born baby swaddled up in mind-maps and golden tickets punched by me. I’ve discovered that faith (in people and in my own ideas) takes a lot of trusting and a hell of a lot of baby steps.

Today I counted and I have about eight projects in the works. Several of them will appear here, as baby steps. The first is a series of installments about how I became a teacher. Last year was a very discouraging one for me as an educator. I started off this year feeling frustrated with the educational system in general and defeated in particular by the experiences I’d had in my classroom. I used to feel like my career choice was meaningful, that I was accomplishing some truly humane purpose, but as I met people in industries outside of education (especially artistic ones), I became increasingly disenchanted with my profession.  From this disenchantment came the founding of an interdisciplinary arts organization and the beginning of a writing project. Because I’ve only ever understood anything through story, and because I can’t do anything well that I don’t perceive to be meaningful, I decided that the only way for me to make sense of my profession and find the meaning I have been missing was to go back and tell the story of how I arrived here. You can find those installments under the category “Becoming Ms. Reed.”

High School English Afternoons

© 2010 David Parker

This afternoon is turning out to be a tease. From the looks of it, I should be able to open my window, but it’s too hot and the pitiful puffs breeze are just enough to blow my papers around. And there are so many papers. So. Many. Papers. The moment I catch up is the very same in which I fall behind. By the time my planning period rolls around, I’m over it. I’m already thinking about walking with my face turned up to the sun so bright, so blindingly bright I shut my eyes and wind up running into something. But I grade papers instead with my feet propped up on the windowsill. Somedays I can’t even stand music. Today, with my tests for tomorrow made up already, and a fresh stack of classwork that I can grade at home, I chose to write.

No one ever tells you about working inside all day and what an underwhelming bummer it can be. How you could lose your stomach from the force, the fall of a sugar crash. How you can read so much that the text begins to lift itself off the page, meeting you halfway.  Newly acquired job skill: I can actually read aloud and think about something entirely different, which is kind of like taking a vacation in the midst of the most boring piece of your day (imagine reading the same piece of text three times a day for 30-minutes to students who feel like they’re really out-doing themselves by halfway listening). The problem with work is that I don’t have time to get so totally absorbed inside of myself that nothing exists but the words I’m generating on the page. 70 teenagers come and go from my classroom throughout the day. And I love them. I do. But I can see why so many people put off writing their whole lives: because it’s demanding. Almost as demanding as 70 teenagers in five hours.

Whenever I pick up Ruthie from school, I always say, “I missed you all day!” Sometimes I feel that way about myself.