Monday, August 22, 2011

Miles to Go Before I Sleep

On the day I walked into my department chair’s room to resign from my first high-school teaching job, she wasn’t there and she wasn’t in the work room or down at the front office. I don’t know where she was, and no one else seemed to know, either. So I continued with my day, going to fourth period, which was really perhaps my worst class of the day with the possible exception of fifth and sixth. That day, they were all just as bad as ever, really stinking up the place, and afterwards I limped out to my Nissan a tired, dejected, miserable human being.

When I got home I told my wife the big news that I still had a job. We went down the street a ways to one of our favorite restaurants and sulked over our sandwiches. When we first began to discuss it, I said “I can’t do this.” By the time we were ready to leave a tip to the server whose job I envied, I said “But I’ll do it one more day.” As I was falling asleep that night, I repeated that mantra. “I’ll do it one more day. That’s all I have to do. One more day.”

This next part is all irrational and preternatural and extrasensory and I wouldn’t believe a word of it if I were you. I’m not sure I believe it, but it happened.

I had one of my usual teaching nightmares, this one starring my current crop of imps. They weren’t being mean, just going about their business, being too loud and completely ignoring me. As I watched them, I heard myself say, “God, I love these kids,” and the sentiment of that statement was so blatantly false it woke me immediately.

“No, I do not love them,” I said in my waking state.

Okay, so maybe it was actually a truck roaring by my house that woke me, and maybe it was the jalapenos on my sandwich that caused the dream. But it sure made me think. Maybe, I thought, I was so accustomed to loving my students that that condition had become a default setting for my dreams of them. And I also thought maybe I could love them. And I thought maybe I already do. And none of it made sense.

Just one more day.

I didn’t resign Thursday or Friday. On Saturday, accustomed as I was to getting up before 5, I had a very early breakfast at one of those greasy diners with good coffee and colorful, gum-popping waitresses. On the way in, I grabbed a newspaper. On the top, above the banner, were little pictures calling attention to the stories inside.

One picture was a mug shot of a cheerleader, her hair drenched with rain and her face reflecting her extreme discomfort with the soggy conditions. That cheerleader was my student. She was in my anarchic fourth-period class.

That woke something in me. I couldn’t wait to point her out to Maudie the waitress. “That’s my student. That’s one of my kids,” I told her.

I cut out the little picture and put it on my bulletin board. The student saw it, liked it, and we became buds, and I started putting more pictures and articles up, all that I could find. All my students’ documented accomplishments went straight to my bulletin board. One day I took all their pictures – still halfway thinking I was documenting my very brief stint as a high-school teacher – and put them up on the bulletin board. I’ve continued that practice every year since.

I don’t know how communities form, or how a sense of belonging evolves or how one goes from being an alien to a citizen or a member of the family.

It’s almost like you begin to become part of the Body.

I know my stuffy little overcrowded classroom started to become my home. The kids became family. And while the first year continued to be almost unbearably challenging, I wasn’t going anywhere.
So if you’ve already had enough, don’t quit yet. Come back one more day. Don’t give up before the miracle, as they say, before you hear voices you’d rather not hear, whose message you can’t put into language, but that are telling you the truth any dang way.

Speaking of voices from beyond, one of them is telling me to shut up and get my classes ready for tomorrow.


  1. I'm so glad you didn't quit Doc Star! I'm not sure what I would have done without you as my teacher, you have no idea how much I enjoyed your classes these past two years and I know a lot of other students feel the same. High school would not have been the same without your witty responses and delicious oranges. Keep up the good work!

  2. I'm glad I stuck around long enough to have the pleasure of teaching you. And thanks for enjoying the oranges!