“There’s something about a school that just ties up your heart.”
These words, a quote from Generic Middle School’s founder, are displayed on a banner inside the school’s main entrance. From my art teaching days, I already knew the truth behind the sentiment—I understood how teaching puts your heart at risk for serious investment in the lives and successes of the kids we spend so much time with each day.
I always knew that during my internship—completed exactly a week ago—I would grow to care for my new students, and from day one, I understood that my last day would likely be bittersweet. But knowing from the start that my time in this classroom was destined to be brief, I wasn’t sure how attached I’d become to my temporary students.
When I was in high school, I recall having a student teacher in my English class, but matter how hard I try, I can remember only one or two vague and insignificant details about her. I seem to recall that she spoke in a small, mousy voice—no doubt she was scared to death—and that she said “spur-IT-ual” when she meant “spiritual,” which I found a little odd. I think her first name was Kelly. Remembering this at the beginning of my own student teaching experience made me feel a little sad. I was about to invest myself in teaching some kids who were likely destined to forget all about my time with them. However, another thought popped into my head that I decided to embrace as a challenge: be memorable. Form that moment forward, I determined to invest fully in my students and strive to be someone they’d remember for having a positive influence on them, even if it was just for a short time.
I passed out copies of my books like they were worksheets (I didn’t pass out many of those. Worksheets you must grade. I’m adverse to grading). I held a lunch time literature circle; we drank tea and ate cookies, and I discovered stories that I’d written all over again through their eyes. It was fabulous. I implemented a vocabulary voucher system where students earned coupons that they could spend on all kinds of perks: candy, quiz points, custom Crayola crayons. The kids spoke in strictly vocabulary words for an entire week. They wove vocabulary words into journal entries so long that I had to modify and, eventually, phase out the program because I couldn’t keep up with the paperwork (remember my aversion to same?). All day, every day, I made it a point to make the events in our room memorable.
Last week, it all came to an end. There was cake, and gifts—a really classy leather notebook, a hat form my university, and an alumni mug, which I’ve decided to refrain from using until I’ve really earned it in a few weeks. There was also the discovery that now former students are actually afraid that I will forget them. They presented me with a notebook full of notes and cards expressing all of the things they’ll remember about my time with them, with so many of the letters ending with the plea, “please don’t forget us!”
They have nothing to worry about. Those kids will be with me for some time to come. The tears I shed on the drive home served to reinforce the accuracy of the school founder’s statement: you risk losing a piece of your heart every time you step in a classroom. I know this is true—heck, I even love that it’s true. Moments like these make me wish that all I ever wanted was a classroom of my own; that I could find complete professional fulfillment in being a teacher. That I didn’t feel the desperate urge to write, that I didn’t have to swallow down annoyance every time I hear someone refer to me as a teacher (I’m a writer, dang it, a writer!). Life would be so much simpler.
But maybe it isn’t as complicated as I seem to make it. I remember one my first newspaper assignments, when I interviewed a regionally prominent glass artist. Before her success as an artist, my subject worked as a real estate agent. But real estate, she explained, “wasn’t enough.” This I understood, the refusal to “settle” for a standard career when the obsession, the passion to create was so intense. She didn’t work with glass because she wanted to: she created art because she needed to. What I found fascinating, though, was that even after building a durable career working in a fragile medium, my artist didn’t let go of the real estate. Glass alone wasn’t enough, either. Without either one—the glass or the real estate--she claimed she wouldn’t be complete.
I, too, am learning to embrace this concept of dual-identity, that you don’t have to be identified in singular terms; that you can be wholly artist and wholly real estate agent, or teacher, or writer, just like you can be wholly wife without losing ground as a mom. Perhaps, then, life has a little more “give” than I expected. Maybe it can expand to hold more roles than I thought. It could be that I don’t need to get so hung up on whether I’m a writer who teacher or a teacher who writes. Figuring out how it all plays out is likely for another day, a different post. Maybe for now it is enough to know that really digging school life doesn’t have to diminish my prospects as a writer.
I went back to visit my students yesterday. I breezed in, gave so many hugs my arms nearly hurt, and then it was time to go. It felt good to be in the classroom again, but today is all about the writing. I will always write because I have to—I teach when I can because my heart got a little tied up somewhere along the way. And it’s all pretty good.