First Year Teaching and Unpaid Debt

I’ve been making notes for this entry since last October. At first I was going to wait a few years to actually say this stuff to the internet-at-large, but I can’t help myself: here we go.

I planned to write a long list of advice for first year teachers, like the one I wrote a year ago when I finished college. But I discovered within about two days of becoming a faculty member alongside wonderful people who wanted to see me succeed, that for every piece of advice there is an equal and opposite piece of advice. So basically, even with the best support system in the world (which, including my parents and former teachers and friends who are a phone call away, I may well have had) you’re going to have to figure it out on your own in the moment, or you’re never going to figure it out at all. And that’s absolutely okay. So that’s what I have to say about that.

But if not advice, what? I guess just a rambling reflection, which is mostly what I do on here anyway. I have grown and changed this year perhaps more than I have in all four years of college. Every day that I have taught, without fail, I have felt both very young and very old. A while back, at play rehearsal I turned to a coworker and said, “There’s five years between me and them, and ten years between me and you, but I feel so much closer in experience to you.” “Yup.” she said. “Weird.” I said. And yet I cry at Caldwell choir concerts, because they inevitably make me feel seventeen again, and while there is something precious about that feeling, it is not quite comfortable either. But being in-between is most of what life is, so this is absolutely okay too.

Looking back I think I went through most of first semester in a bit of shock. I remember one day in September when Lisa came around to take attendance, I told her with a mix of bravado and desperation that they were all present, though I hadn’t even bothered to count them, much less look at my roster. I would doggedly stay up late into the night, making powerpoints and organizing notes, feeling my heart turn to heavy iron whenever a new email appeared unexpectedly in my school inbox. On the rare occasions that I was in a context other than Caldwell, I still couldn’t manage to talk about anything other than school and my students, no matter if my listeners were interested. (Still not great at that, but I’m getting better. I’m becoming more normal again.) Here is a somewhat-exact excerpt of notes I kept for myself throughout that first semester:

Sixteen-year-olds are adorable.

Sixteen-year-olds are little turds who don’t know that teachers have feelings.

At least I haven’t cried in front of students yet. That’s a victory.

I love being observed. It’s the freaking best. It makes me feel safe.

Almost-literal blind exhaustion sometimes hits while driving home.

I stay up late because I want time to myself before I go in the next morning.

It is so hard to get up in the morning. SO hard.

Why does my life have so many binder clips in it now?

Is it going to be like this all year?

IMPORTANT: That day sixth period worked quietly. 11/6. Let it be remembered. [Note: I actually wrote a poem about this day. It’s called “An Ode to My Students’ Silence.”]

But I survived. And stayed marginally sane to boot. I kept in touch with friends who were also first-year-teaching, because the front of a classroom can be a starkly lonely place. It is good to feel as if you’re in the trenches alongside someone else (and now that I’ve briefly taught World War One, that’s an especially vivid metaphor). I watched all of Boy Meets World, and though I remain doubtful that it’s really very kosher to regularly assign essays on a whim at the end of class just because the topic pertains to an issue in your favorite students’ lives, I was reminded that even in the world of nineties sitcoms, it is still possible to be a truly fine teacher and that doing so doesn’t center around making your students happy. And then late one Sunday night in November, when I felt just awful, I found this:

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I’m not typically a big charts and stages person, but this is absolute it-gets-better gospel truth. Believe it, cause it’s real. By December, according my notes at the time, I had “all warm fuzzy advent feelings after seeing them sing and getting gifts from them and having them treat me like a real human being and not just a grade machine.” Things were looking up. I was going to be okay and so were they.

In fact, there are a few students to whom I wish I could write individual thank you notes for encouragement they didn’t even know they gave. Highschoolers can cause more pain than they know–but their kindnesses, even unintentional and very small kindnesses, can bring so much joy. The times a student has gone out of his or her way to actually make my day better, I have usually cried (though not in front of them.) And it was a fairly normal but unexpected thing one single student did way back in early December that made me decide not to up and quit when I was feeling a bit desperate.

Really perhaps the thing I have learned most thoroughly this year is the thank you note thing: the value of appreciation and expressing gratitude. When I was a sophomore in college I wrote Dr. Brown a thank you note once and she made a huge deal out of it in front of the rest of the students, and said that sometimes she felt like Christ healing the ten lepers with only one coming back to say thank you. I thought this story was hilarious–I adored Dr. Brown, but she was comparing herself to Jesus, for goodness sake–and would tell it over and over to my English major friends. I no longer think it’s funny. I know exactly what she meant. When you teach and you care that you do it well, you are fighting on the front lines of humanity. You’re teaching the human mind to reach its potential, holding out the world in your hands, trying to get the faces in front of you to comprehend it, to feel their own smallness. There’s so much pressure to get it right, but when you do get it right, often nobody notices, and this is discouraging. To give more than you take, that is what every good teacher does, but no mere mortal can give out of a dry well. We all need water.

So, knowing that, and knowing what I know now especially, I want to shyly and belatedly be grateful to the people who taught me. I didn’t know what it took, and even if I had, I’m not sure I could have understood.  Thank you. Thank you for what you did for me: for crying with me, for laughing with and at me, for graciously thinking it was endearing when I told you bluntly that your class was “not my happy place,” for reading picture books aloud, for letting me run to your room in tears when I first discovered Billy Collins, for handing me that mysterious and wonderful envelope before the New York trip, for letting me sit on a desk during your planning period and just talk and talk and talk. And thank you for what you did for all of us: for heavy worry, for long patience, for giving us the best of what you loved, for volunteering to be Atlas with the world on his shoulders and believing it to be worth the trouble, for finally entrusting each of us to Jesus when it was all that you could do.

I see it a bit more clearly now. Second semester, when my responsibilities began to pick up pace, and when my heart learned to hold on anyway and smile in the wind, I started to care less about what my students thought of me and more about the students themselves. And I didn’t know that in a job in which I was supposed to be the helper, I would routinely feel so helpless to really love them well. So unable and weak. They need so much charity and compassion and help. I know this because I need this things too. I know this because, in our need and inability, we are the same.

Despite all of the doing and learning and trying, the appreciation and the lack thereof, I am discovering a secret which probably most teachers who’ve gone before me know. Education, when you really try to do it right, is debt. An extensive and painfully shining web of unpaid and often unacknowledged debt. We’re all bound and knotted together by it. We give and are given to over and over again, then march off triumphantly into the sunset, as if our spoils are our own, while the ropes of debt tug at our heels. Some days I can’t keep straight who is demanding restitution from whom. There is a colossal owing, and we, none of us, can possibly pay it back. And this, I think, is where education all goes bad or is hatched, where we begin to ceaselessly demand the pound of flesh from one another, or relinquish ourselves to the waist-high waters of grace.

This has been a long and meandering entry, but really there is one reason I have written it: I am preaching to myself. I am saying: “Alice, you feel as if you’ve worked hard and given much, but what you have given is that which was first given you. Your deficits are deep and wide, but they have been filled by a love that is deeper and wider. Your debts have been cancelled by the great Forgiver of debt, the Payment himself. Forgive your debtors as your debts have been forgiven. Look at the world and look at the hands that hold it and remember that you are small. See that your Lord is large and great. Love with liberty and with joy.”

Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be. Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.

A Long, Cumulative Entry

I have finally had time to think. I finished finals on Monday, missed some people in my good-byes, and left school on Tuesday. The past few days have been full of helping my mom cook, and driving Mary back and forth to Davidson to move her in and out of houses. Next week is for unpacking and repacking, and generally being of use to some favorite high school teachers.

A couple hours after I got home, I went to Caldwell’s spring choir concert, and after about two songs, I wanted nothing more than to sneak out the back door and go home. I stayed because to leave would have greatly perturbed George, my date, and because this was something I had promised my high school self. It wasn’t that the music was hard to listen to. Mama Twigg, you always put on a great show, and the other night was the best I’ve heard. Our choir department is dang good, and I hope they’re getting a heck of a lot more money than they were when I was there. Neither was it loneliness that made me uncomfortable. Lots of faces lit up when they saw me, and I got all the hugs I could reasonably ask for. I think what bothered me most was my own detachment. Last year, I was fine at graduation, but I bawled at the spring concert. Choir was far and away one of my favorite parts of high school. Almost all of my close friends were in it at some point or another, and as one of the few who liked almost every single song we sang (yes, even the Robert Frost cow one) I was possibly its most devoted member. That girl still exists, and I hope she always will, because for the most part, she’s a good kid. But in the last year many layers, some of them rather thick, have stretched over her. I have grown larger, more substantial, more myself. On Tuesday night at the concert I had only just left a heap of dear friends, and there were very few theatrics with which to mark my goodbye. I was not in the mood to watch all these nice kids gush over each other, and the extremely tight bond which was cemented by perfect harmony and pleated black cumberbunds. I wanted to be home on my study couch, writing an entry such as this. Here goes.

It has been, now that I think about it, a wonderful year. A very nice beginning sort of year. I am startlingly, some what of a big girl coming out at the other end of it (dare I say…adult?) When buying lunch I think about food groups. I take myself, and sometimes my friends for long, late-night walks. Sometimes I forget my make up and it’s totally okay. I have a books-to-read list and a movies-to-watch list, and I can identify and mock bad literary criticism when I see it. I am more shy when I am uncomfortable, but I am more honest with those I’m close to. Somehow, by a lovely perverse law of nature, if you get in the habit of always sharing your honest opinions, your opinions honestly become nicer, especially if you make a practice of listening to other people’s first. I’m less theatric, more practical, and in addition to my usual endearments, have picked up some soothing forms of address such as “dude” and “man.” My speech is also sometimes  liberally sprinkled with unintentionally pretentious literary references. I am much more dependent on this little computer than I would like to admit. Aside from this blog, I’m addicted to several TV shows on hulu, and I no longer feel the need to handwrite the first draft of every paper. (I’m a little nostalgic about that last one.) Friends have gotten in the habit of giving me their cast-off clothes (sweaters and dresses in particular,) and telling me when I’m getting sassy. I’ve learned to live with snow and boots and wet jean-cuffs and a Jesus who is much more real and active than I’d ever really known. And, dude, I’ve probably given and gotten more hugs in a nine-month period than the rest of the Borough of Grove City combined. (As Jackie would say: like a BOSS!)

Anyhow, a week from this coming Tuesday, I leave for six weeks at my grandparents’ in Missouri. It’s exactly what I did last summer, and it was not the plan this time around, but, you know? It’s gonna be good. I’ll weed some rose gardens, wash some windows, and forge through that book list. Here, for your reading pleasure, is what that good kid under all those layers wrote as she sat in the car last July heading home to Carolina, after a generous dose of Brookfield, MO.

   As I left for Missouri I had two basic ideas of what would be happening once I got there. Books and Boys. It was to be a summer to remember, a summer to grow up in. Something adult was going to happen. Yet instead of late nights reading or in town, I found myself sprawled across the bed in the end room till midnight or so, comfortably suffocated in the estrogen-saturated atmosphere, telling stories and discussing isms. Shakespeare, Calvinism, elevators, Jane Austen, Silly Bands and feminism. I grew to love Charity’s questions and the way Faith mocked my figures of speech. Every boy was pronounced a “sweetheart” and chigger bites were documented on film. We cut and dyed our hair just for kicks. Girlhood reigned. One afternoon I ran into town to get something from Walmart for Grandma. While there I suddenly noticed something I hadn’t before. There were hordes of girls, about my age or a little younger, wandering around a little aimlessly, wearing a great deal of eyeliner and a uniform of t-shirts which had been ripped open down the sides, then tied back together to artistically display their sports bras underneath. It dawned on me. Walmart is the one place in town everyone comes. This is the equivalent of clubbing in Brookfield. They were looking for love. I bought my bleach and left with no regrets. I had a cake to make, and later maybe the girls and I would lie out. We would get in the pool, pour bleach on each other’s heads, and then go to the front yard to let it dry in the sunny breeze off the lake which feels like the warm moment between waking and sleeping, like Aslan’s breath.

  I have learned many things about myself this past month or two. I have learned  that I easily lose patience with those who annoy me, and I have so little self-control that I will consume an entire jar of Nutella in 24 hours. I have learned that I do not appreciate either KFC or Lady Gaga more on better acquaintance, and that there are moments when sixteen-year-old boys could suddenly go extinct and I would totally be okay with it. But mostly, I have learned that I am blessed. As the psalmist says, “The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places.” Places like a camp with tall trees, tall cousins, and ginger cookies. Places like a twilight cemetery on a hill full of cicada song. Places like a long, low house looking over a lake, which smells of bacon first thing in the morning, and only has little country mice. And my family. I have several cousins who like to give presents for every occasion, (mostly I think, because they like to buy them…) but I’m not sure they’ll ever understand that the greatest gift they give me is the way they listen. They listen when I talk like they want to hear. They ask me to read; they ask for stories. I’m someone important. I’m their cousin. Of course, my grandparents are the sort of people you rarely meet if ever. They have done what their Lord has asked of them, and spent their lives being the salt of the earth, preserving and seasoning what is good. I will never find better or more godly examples.

            So now I have packed up to go home after seven weeks. I had to sit on my suitcase to zip in all the new clothes I have gotten practically for free and all the letters friends from home have sent. I have learned my way around my grandma’s kitchen, even making a pie of which she approved, though none of my cakes quite made the grade. True, I did not play on any hay bales, but I got to visit the Marceline Business Complex, and drive Highway F with the windows down, so what more could I ask? There were people to hug when I left Brookfield this morning, there will be people to hug tonight in Nashville, and, most excitingly, there will be people to hug when I get home on Friday. Whenever anyone asks my grandfather how he is he answers, “Greatly blessed.” Tell me about it, Grandpa. Tell me about it.

Yeah. I got something to look forward to in a few weeks, don’t I?