I Am Gonna Make It Through This Year If It Kills Me

4 Mar

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The greatest teacher I ever had was Bart Burgess.  He was 27 and could a bit of a clown. But he treated me like I was a human being and not a human-being-in-training.  I couldn’t tell you anything about the content he taught me, or any literal test he ever prepared me for, but he taught me more about how to be a good and thoughtful person than anyone in my life up to that point (at 16 you are too young to realize all the great things your parents have given you.)  For four months of my life–I was learning that semester on a sail boat, which I am now convinced was as much a last-ditch effort by my parents to get me to pull my shit together before the big “tests” of college, and this whole real life thing.  I suppose in some ways it may have worked.  Not just because it opened my eyes to a world much bigger than myself and my tiny little school that seemed like the whole world up to that point.  But mostly because I met Bart, and others like him who were real and who cared about what kind of people they were.  The teachers were young and went by their first name, or nicknames.  They realized that whatever content they could give us as we sat on the deck of a 127-foot Schooner, sailing from St. Thomas down to Venezuela and then all the way up to Halifax, Nova Scotia, stopping at the different islands and port cities along the way, was very much ancillary to what we could learn by opening our eyes and looking around.  Examining the hugeness of the world when you are the lone light bobbing on the surface at night, and you look around for miles in any direction and all you see are stars millions of miles away.  Or that sometimes the best thing a teacher can do for you, is hand you a scavenger hunt sheet in Charleston, South Carolina, and send you off in small groups.  On the list: a cup of grits (up until a few years I still had the cup…not the grits) and taking a shower at the local manual car wash.

Bart was living proof that you have to learn to love the life you get at some point, no matter how incredibly awkward and difficult it feels to do so when you are 16 or 18 or 29.  I really believe that.  In order to leave even the slightest bit of positive impact in this world, you have got to learn how to appreciate the ways you can teach the world, and the world can teach you; and the ways you can make the world your playground as well.  If you’re not having fun, and you’re not happy, I’m not sure it matters how smart you are.

I changed careers after 2.5 years, ostensibly because I felt my career was unfulfilling (I worked in Research for a Reference Publishing company, mostly on Sports topics) and I was spending the majority of my waking hours in a lonely cubicle doing something unimportant.  More so than that, if I am being honest, I wasn’t having any fun.  I didn’t get to interact with many other people on a meaningful level, and smile and laugh.  The highlight of my day was typically checking deadspin.  I saw the fulfillment and enjoyment my parents and brother have gotten out of careers in education, and I thought, “Why not?”  I didn’t have any great epiphany that this is my calling, or even self-righteousness about it.  It was probably as much a selfish act as anything else: here’s a job where I can focus on things I care about, like reading and writing, and feel good about it, too.

But I did decide, somewhere along the first year of my teaching that I was going to be a teacher like Bart.  I had a lot of great teachers I could have chosen to emulate: my English teachers in High School are almost certainly the reason I became an English teacher, myself.  But I was realistic, and I saw where my strengths were.  I was never going to be some kind of organized super-planner, like some teachers were.  I was never going to have so much knowledge about the content, like my teacher Ms. M. that it practically oozed out of me, and it was impossible for the kids not to sop it up.  I wasn’t going to have the patience, like Ms. R., to sit with kids and literally strangle-hold them into learning to appreciate what it means to be a good reader and writer.  I didn’t have that in my personality and my style.  But I definitely felt that I had it in me to follow Bart’s model.  Just keep leading the horses to water.  Just keep insisting it is worth trying something even if it makes you a little uncomfortable.  Not because you say it, and you are older and have some kind of authority, but because you’re living proof.  Be open, be honest, and just be you.

It’s very hard to do that in today’s teaching climate.  Perhaps, I am finding, impossible.  Teachers are fired and ridiculed in the NY Post for admitting to past indiscretions in judgment, or for blowing off steam on Facebook.  They are told to keep the kids at a distance (unless you work in a Charter School, in which case, make sure they have your cell phone and a personal pager!) If the wrong people read this blog and knew that many of my students read it, that would probably be enough to warrant me getting a serious talking to.  A student who was feeling really shitty about some things and concerned about college asked me and two fellow teachers (female) to take her out for dinner last week just to talk and provide advice.  I seriously had to think twice about it.  That’s absurd.  More and more you are told by union leaders and administrators that it’s just not safe to care.

I banged out last week for the first time this year, when I wasn’t sick, just because I felt like shit.  Because I couldn’t convince myself on a Thursday that it was worth it to be in the classroom.  I couldn’t come up with a single reason why it would be better for me to be the adult in that room than anyone else, even a stiff corpse.  A stiff corpse might have been less likely to snap.  It’s the kids and it’s not the kids.  It’s the administration and it’s not.  And it’s the teachers and it’s not.  Unless you work in a school that is absolutely dysfunctional, it’s impossible to understand what it’s like.  And when schools like this are being scrutinized by know-it-alls who never actually step foot in the school (outside of a highly rehearsed two-day review where they see some caricature of the school, and not the school itself) well all of it can be disheartening.  Beyond disheartening.

I came home Wednesday night, and I tried to make a t-chart list of things I have given up over the last five years of my life (left column) and things I have gained.  I have no idea why I thought this was a good idea.  The list on the left took up the whole page.  And then I just sat there and stared at the column on the right.  And kept staring.

Kismet, or whatever it is, is a life-ring.  I was weeding through some Facebook messages on Saturday morning.  A message from a few weeks ago came up.  A former student when I taught in the Juvenile Centers, asking if I used to teach there.  I said, I did, and I remembered her well.  “A very good writer. And a bit of a handful.”  She said she still had a book of poetry we had made as a class, and that she was out and in a great school now.  And then she thanked me.  “Thank you for helping me while I was in there I don’t think I would have made it if my grades weren’t so good.”  I didn’t know how to respond to that, without telling her that the writing itself means so much more than the grades.  I guess I didn’t respond because I didn’t see that as a thank you meant for me until I re-read it this weekend.  Maybe I just need it to be a thank you meant for me to make me feel like I can keep doing this.

I made a promise five years ago that I was going to be the kind of teacher Bart is.  And all there is to it is that I have to be.  I don’t need to be affirmed by people who really don’t know what goes on in my school, or in my classroom.  Sometimes I wish I got more feedback from the kids: “Schmidt, you sucked this week.”  Or, “Schmidt, you killed it today.”  But I guess I don’t need that either.  I just need to keep leading the horses to water.  Keep insisting it is worth it to keep trying.  Keep being living proof.  Be open, be honest, and be me.  I can’t be any other kind of teacher, and if a school or a city demands another kind of teacher, at the end of my commitment this year, they can have it.  The world needs more teachers like Bart, even if I have to provide it somewhere else.

Bart, thank you man, and ten years later I miss you tremendously. Rest in Peace and Fair Winds.

Everyone else, please do the “bad” teachers of this world a favor and read this fantastic op-ed my dad just sent me.  And sorry for the self-absorbed journaling.  Back to topic blogging in a couple days. For now, I leave you with the words of my friend and teacher, Bart, in the last letter he wrote to his friend, Fuz:

“A strange and wonderful classroom is life, and all of us teacher and student alike learn from it as we learn from each other. I hope I make the most of it. […]”

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One Response to “I Am Gonna Make It Through This Year If It Kills Me”

  1. Yo Mista March 5, 2012 at 5:12 pm #

    Best line of this post: “If you’re not having fun, and you’re not happy, I’m not sure it matters how smart you are.”

    We all need validation my friend. You simply need to learn how to hear differently. Think about the students who do spend time with you in class talking about things beyond English. Think about the Famous Nameless. Think about your colleagues who love BSing with you whenever there’s a chance. People don’t waste their time on other people until they mean something to them.

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