Back again in the classroom
I am back in the classroom.
The first time I ever was, in the early ’90s, it was the time when teachers made their own bulletin boards. We would choose a wise saying, or a quote, something to put at the top of the blackboard so that the students could always read it and aim to become it.
That first year, I only remember the making of it as a physical act, but cannot remember what I eventually chose to put at the top and center of the room. I cannot trick my memory to plunge back 30 years ago, and rummage through what quote was centering my being at the time. Indeed, what held me on that first job, that first adventure, that first classroom?
This part is true, though: I made the lettering myself, cutting the intricate font on colored paper, measuring the available space, finding the center of the board, and moving outward to make sure all the words fit. I may no longer remember the actual words I chose, but I am certain it was something about love.
The day before the first day of class, bulletin board up, blackboard bright and new, chairs all straightened, lined up and precise, I walked the length and breadth of that room, memorizing its dimensions, throwing my voice (after all, what were all those years of voice lessons for?) to check if I could throw it far enough for the last row of students in the room to hear. I placed my hand on each chair, like a benediction, grateful, grateful, grateful, that I had found my way into a classroom. What a gift and an honor and a huge responsibility.
Truth be told, it was not easy getting here. It was full of toil and trouble, detours that plagued my young soul, fearing that it would never find a place to express itself fully. In my first job interview, I aced (what were all those oral exams for, anyway?) and the principal couldn’t wait to hire me. “Oh, you just have to do some formal testing…” Gulp. Testing? “Oh, the usual IQ, general knowledge, and personality tests…” Second gulp. Tests?
When life turns absurd, we either laugh or cry or we clutch at each other and find solace in companionship, and yes, solace in the classroom, in study, in research, in new words learned, in new discoveries, in the firm belief that we can build a better world, in spite of ourselves.
I was never good at testing. Questions with one sure answer plague my naturally creative soul. I always feel like everything could be both a yes and a no when thought about deeply. I am apt to take things either too literally or too metaphorically.
In every formal test I’ve taken I was always placed in the “normal” or “low” category and I’d laugh at such results and rest in my shiny self. But off to testing, I went and sure enough, was deemed not fit to teach. I sat on the steps of the school crying my eyes out, wondering how would I ever get hired.
Another school I went to was even worse. The school head looked at me and said, “I remember you in school. You were never a serious person.” What to say? What to do? Because that crazy creative soul knew that could be both true and false when thought about deeply. I wasn’t a serious person when I was young, because when else were you not going to be serious? What was I to say in the face of that rejection?
And so there I was again, on the steps of yet another school crying my eyes out. How would I ever be able to get into a classroom? How was it possible that the one thing I was sure of in my life, that I was meant to be a teacher, was something being withheld from me?
I come into a classroom with this checkered history and I am convinced that has made all the difference. You see, the students I have with me are full of fear and trepidation, having lived and learned through a pandemic, their dreams in seeming suspension. Many of them are on campus for the very first time.
I don’t know how to explain that it is also a kind of gift to be on equal footing. It is also my first time on campus in two whole school years. I am in no way leaps and bounds ahead of anyone.
The night before class I burst into tears anticipating all the mess and mayhem of return. Our obstacles used to be about material: if I knew enough and if my methods were appropriate. Now, it’s how to teach with a mask on, how to social distance while walking along crowded walkways, and how to maintain an online version of my class in case things turn awry. Heavens! How to embed a file!
There was no other way in except to recognize the elephant in the room. “How many of you are freaking out right now?” The show of hands was exhilarating! In all my years of teaching, I didn’t know the first lesson was actually knowing one is not alone. Sometimes a teacher saying, “I am afraid, too,” is the most powerful lesson plan.
Here we are now, entering the second week of class. There is still much confusion in the room, both teacher and student trying to find the language for the way through. We have no master plan, no other stories for how to face the challenges ahead. Even history books that speak of past disasters speak from hindsight, but we’re still in it.
But there is comfort there, in knowing one day history will write about us, too, and thus we must make better maps for those to come after us. Keep the liars at bay, banish them from our honest living and loving and striving.
When I can sense the panic rising in the room, I stop whatever I am teaching and revert to storyteller mode. I tell my funny stories of my haphazard living, all the mistakes I made, all the times I fell and scraped myself, all the impossible things I never thought I would overcome, all the detours and destruction I engaged in, and yet here I am alive, alive, alive! I feel that in the classroom, sometimes, the disbelief in being here, still; the fear in being here, still.
It is easy to feel embarrassed to live when so many have died but one must look life and death in the eye and hold them both with reverence, respect, and courage. When life turns absurd, we either laugh or cry or we clutch at each other and find solace in companionship, and yes, solace in the classroom, in study, in research, in new words learned, in new discoveries, in the firm belief that we can build a better world, in spite of ourselves.
Imagine we are all teachers now and we are all given a bulletin board and on that board, we must choose that one line to see us through these continuing dark times. You must choose what to share, what to emphasize, what to underline. What would you choose? Mine would be this:
It is not the answer that enlightens but the question. — Eugene Ionesco
* * *
At the end of the first day of class, I waited for the students to leave the classroom. I took stock of the room, repeating what I did my first day in 1991, placing a benediction on each chair, thanking ever-present grace, calling on the benevolent forces of good to keep us all in the light.