Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What I've Gotten Myself Into

On April 20, 1999, I sat on our dilapidated plaid couch in the living room on 15 E. Vine Street.  I was two weeks away from graduating with honors from Miami University with a Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education and a double-minor in History and Political Science.

I remember staring at the TV screen, slack-jawed, in disbelief.  I had on a green backpack.  It was a sunny day.  I was getting ready to head out to one of my last classes as a student; the last before I was in the front of the room.

What is happening?

What have I signed up for?

I remember people saying things to me like, "Aren't you too smart to waste your career on teaching?"  Some professors even tried to talk me out of it.  I remember an Econ professor specifically trying to convince me to switch.  "It's, of course, noble and all, but aren't you concerned...don't you worry about...wouldn't you like to do more?"  That was always the theme. 

I was going to waste it.  My career, my brain, my time.

But it was noble and all, and don't get me wrong, they always said.

My first year teaching was both the most wonderful and most awful year of my life.  I questioned what I had gotten myself into.  I had 168 students in 6 classes.  I was completely, utterly overwhelmed.  I was far from home, and I was homesick.  I was maybe, if I was lucky, 2 days ahead of the kids. 

I started to get paperwork together for law school.  I started to look into the LSAT.

But as the year went on, I figured out how to stay afloat.  My mom would tell me advice and when I'd call, crying, saying "I have SO many papers I don't know what to do with all of them and how do I sleep and eat and how do I create more lessons when I'm buried under these papers?" I remember her saying "Stop giving them so many papers!" 

So simple.  It was an "aha" moment that year.  I didn't have to do paper pushing. I could come up with meaningful assessments that were based on discussion, on analysis, and on higher-order thinking skills.  You know--what I was trained to do.

So I did.  And I loved it. And I realized that there was nothing--NOTHING--else in this entire world I wanted to do.  I loved working with the kids, even if sometimes they drived me nuts and I drove them nuts. And although I relocated back to Cleveland at the end of that year I cried--really hard, actually--when I packed up that room at Oak Hills.  Big fat tears rolled down my face when I read the cards the kids gave me and the scrapbook they made me. I still think about those kids often.  Many of them have families of their own now; I know of at least one who is a history teacher himself.  They will always be my first class.  My first year that taught me so much.

I like to think I've gotten better over time, or at least I sure hope so.  I refer to my students as "my kids" even though I was barely older than them when I started.  I'm now 13 years into this career--1/3 of the way done, if I am lucky enough to keep doing this. 

There is still nothing in this world I'd rather do.  Despite the fact that I just read this article on the careers that give you the least return for your degree, and Education is #6.

Are you sure?  I mean, it's noble and all, but....don't you think...wouldn't you rather...

No.  Actually, no. 

And from what I've seen, most of us here would answer that the same way.  I was born a teacher.  That's what I do.  I know it may not "make sense" from a financial standpoint, but to do anything else would be a waste of my time.

I am here because I love it.

On October 2, 2007, I became a mother.  I once heard that being a mother meant your heart forever walks around outside your body, and I think that's the closest I can come to describing it.  In one instant, one moment, my entire framework changed.  My wiring changed.  My students were still "my kids," but Jackson became my heart and soul walking around, throwing temper tantrums, giving me hugs, digging mudpies, and spotting trucks.  One moment, and my heart wasn't mine anymore.

Jackson is now five.  He is sweet and strong-willed and determined and strong and funny and silly and inquisitive and five.  Five.  He is one year younger than most of the children killed in Connecticut.  Had he been born a few days earlier, he would have been in kindergarten this year.  But I got one more year to shield him from this world, this evil that I can't even talk about.  One more year before I really have to let him know what he's getting into. 

I purposely stayed away from the news the past five days.  Yesterday, at lunch in the lunchroom, I politely excused myself when people began talking about it.  Because I can't.  I can type this and I'm only crying a little, but if I try to open my mouth and say these things either I will cry uncontrollably or go off on a vulgar, profanity-laced anti-assault weapons rant which I think we all know isn't necessarily the easy answer anyway.

I keep thinking of those parents who have gifts in their attic to wrap, like I do, that now don't matter.  That still have crafts hanging on their fridge with little handprints on them.  That, like me, probably got frustrated last week when their little girl or boy didn't want to wear THAT dress or put on THAT coat or eat that for dinner and NO! I'mnotgoingtobednow and suddently wish they could have that argument again, just once, just one more time.

The parents whose hearts that were walking outside of their body are now gone, and never coming back.

The brothers and sisters who are left behind. 

I don't know how I'd feel if I didn't have a 5-year old right now.  But having one made this feel like September 11 felt when I found out Kelly was on American Airlines Flight 11.  All I can see is her face in that plaid seat on the plane, forever.  And all I can see is my Jackson in a classroom.  Terrified.  Forever.

Some want to arm teachers like myself.  I respectfully disagree.  First off, I am trained as a teacher and as an educator; not as a marksman.  Nor do I ever want to be. 

The one story I did listen to, and really read, was of Vicki Soto.  And it's given me nightmares lately (I haven't slept much since Friday) because I know I would do the exact same thing.  If anyone were to threaten my kids in this classroom, I would snap into a fit of rage and I would do anything--ANYTHING--to stop them.  And I think all of us would.  Matt and I have even talked about getting some rope ladders for our rooms (both on the 2nd floor) to get our kids out safely, because like hell we're going to sit in here and passively wait to get shot.  Simply locking the door and turning off the lights doesn't guarantee anything anymore.  Not against this kind of illness and this kind of evil.

I would do what Vicki tried to do, and I wouldn't think twice about it.  Because I know that when I send Jackson to kindergarten next year, his teachers would do it, too.  We would all take a bullet for your kids.  Our kids.

I don't know what the solution is here; there are so many failures and so many heartaches on so many levels.  It is not an easy answer--that's for sure.  I think we have to change our entire culture, which of course is pretty much the hardest thing to do in the universe.  We have to change our attitude and our treatments toward mental health issues, we have to change our culture of consuming violence, we have to change our culture that says those who work with kids are wasting their time and those who can, do and those who can't, teach.

I know I'll be quite vocal in the coming weeks to my lawmakers on my thoughts of what to do to move forward.  I won't share them here; that's not what I wanted to write here.  I think I just needed to vent a bit on how it's been as a teacher and a mother of a five year old to watch these five days unfold.  And wonder what we've gotten ourselves into.

And how, ultimately, we can all get out.


J. L. said...

Thanks for taking the time to post this. I'm a math teacher, a mom to young kids, and what you said really expressed how I feel. Because I'm a math teacher, I don't express my feelings well at all. And I have been frustrated by much of what has been written. May you have a Merry Christmas. And by the way, my ah-ha moment was when I was told not every assignment had to be graded the next day. Back in 1996.

Alili said...

I've been waiting for your thoughts on all of this, as you always are so articulate when you write about your 'kids.' Thank you for TEACHING and GUIDING your students. I hope my children have teachers like you.

KC said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm a long-time reader - an English teacher for 12 years and mom of two boys AND I was a new triathlete in 2006 :) - and you've really expressed what I feel about this event.

Of course it's our job to protect OUR KIDS. It broke my heart to have to tell my middle schoolers that I had a plan - I would tape that poster over the door and we'd go THERE and... and it broke my heart again to have to explain this event to my 8 year-old.

Peace and happiness to you this holiday!

Anonymous said...

The day someone tells me to attend weapons training is they day I leave the classroom. (almost 40 years...I tried to retire and can't. working with preschoolers now and loving it.) I too had so many visions of terrified children after the incident. Those at my daughter at that age (she is now 26). Once a mom, always a mom and ditto for being an educator. Merry Christmas!