I don’t focus on the dark side of my job. Teachers who thrive are the ones who focus on the kids — what they need from us as they become who they’re going to be. They’re like blobs of cookie dough (all the necessary ingredients are there but they haven’t been baked) and because the blobs are all different sizes and flavors, you can’t treat them all alike. If you do, some will burn to a crisp and others will remain doughy. It’s why I never make certain kids read out loud; why I let others perform a rap as their final “Hamlet” project. I let the oatmeal-raisin be oatmeal-raisin, you know? I allow for pink sprinkles.
When discouragement wraps its slimy little arms around my neck and breathes its funk on me, I switch my thoughts to the 142 faces that look back at me every day; 142 faces who’ll go, go, go out into the world in June. I see the kids as they’ll be in 10 or 15 or 35 years, and I drop time-capsuled hints and jokes to those people; hints and jokes these adults-in-disguise will only understand long after I’m dead.
It’s like planting bulbs that lie underground for years before they bloom, in a season I won’t live to see.
The thrill of teaching lies in the fact that I have no idea who I’m talking to. It’s like a long mystery novel with a lot of detail in the first chapter: This could be important later.
I can’t forget my own high school years. They marked me. If I’m any good as a teacher, it’s because I can’t forget — how one kind word dissolved me with gratitude back then; how one shitty interaction with an adult highlighted and underlined my general sense of powerlessness and how powerlessness was the worst feeling in the world; like emotional seasickness. I remember the sound of snickering echoing off the metal bathroom stalls. The taste of Sprite for breakfast; the smell of AquaNet hairspray mingled with cigarette smoke. The back library room; the cold one, where I found our school’s small collection of feminist non-fiction. Many of those books are still there. And you still need a jacket.
High school breaks your heart when you’re a teacher who can’t forget. So, during first period every day, I look out into the rows of faces (six long; six deep) and see artists; doctors, engineers; and one gifted professional athlete. Second period has a psychologist; a math professor; and the woman who develops a cheap, effective immunization against HIV. Third period is full of excellent parents and teachers, plus one Episcopal minister and a Peace Corps volunteer. In fifth period, the Democratic Senator from Arizona keeps her small group on task, and in 6th, the lead guitarist for a band that doesn’t exist yet (but whose first album will go platinum) slumps in his seat because his legs are too long for his chair.
I see ordinary people, too — people who will experience drudgery and setbacks and suffering, because nobody escapes it. I want to add something to their cache of memories to use against that time — maybe a line of poetry they’ll remember during a long day in the hospital, or a weird-ass short story by Flannery O’Connor during a long night in jail. I don’t overestimate my powers — most of these kids, in the rush to forget high school, will forget me — but for those who are being marked as I was marked, this could be important later. Anything could happen.