I don't cry anymore or have the feeling like I could. I've realized his lately, especially when I've watched or heard sad things that I'm sure would have made me fall into a sad stupor before. It's strange, but I feel like my heart is hardening. And this time, not just the exterior. I mean the whole thing is just hardening. I don't feel compassion in the literal sense of the word: I don't "suffer with" anyone anymore, it seems. In fact, I feel almost nothing. Like a robot with all the answers--or at least a calculated response to things. Like a machine that just carries on to do its job.
I don't delve into the lives of my students anymore, and frankly--oddly--I don't particularly care to. I did in the beginning, but...not anymore. And I know that upon reading this, your eyes have probably narrowed and your brow has raised and you're wondering why this post seems so at odds with everything you'd expect. And you should know that I titled it "Lessons Unplanned" for a reason because I too have been wondering why this experience is so at odds with everything I'd expected.
But I expected a lot of things when I entered this commitment, and probably nine of out ten of those things did not go as planned. This has been an experience unlike any other in that everything I've ever done before now has been done exactly according to plan.
Well, Hello, Real Life, nice to meet you.
I thought upon entering this experience of teaching what we like to "politely" call "underprivileged children" (or "children from low income communities" or "high-risk children" or anything else that places humans with unique lives in very generalized categories) that I was very much aware of my identity as a privileged white girl. In fact, I wrote about it obsessively, and I certainly still stand by the things that I wrote about.
But teaching my kids--the beautiful little souls that fill up my classroom daily--has changed my identity in a profound way. It has changed me almost radically--almost as if it has changed the very makeup of who I am and who I have been all this time.
Before this experience, if you'd asked me to describe myself in three words, I would almost always say these: passionate, ambitious, and compassionate. But I'm replacing "compassionate," now, with something else to be determined when I sort through things.
In the first few months of the school year, there were so many days I'd go home and feel heavy. Some days, I would just lie in bed. Many days, I would just cry. Sometimes it was more like a desperate weeping. Because my kids would tell me things that would break my heart. I would see things that would break my heart. I would think about things that would break my heart.
Nothing has changed in their lives, but I did.
It wasn't that the weight of their problems became too much for me to bear. Indeed, I shed a lot of tears, but still it wasn't that. In fact, when I cried for them, I felt almost ashamed and weak. I wasn't actually crying FOR them. I was crying BECAUSE of them--as if their existence was just too hard on privileged me to witness. Crying because of them wasn't fair. How dare I drive home in and to my privilege, crying on the way and crying there--feeling sorry for these children who deserve better?
No. Because they would come to school the next day and they'd be humans just like me but better because they didn't go home feeling sorry for themselves. They just lived and trudged through--experiencing the range of human emotion and being--just like everyone else. And who was I to feel sorry for them when their very lives gave them the resiliency to keep going every single day? Just waking up means that despite ANY hardship they experience, they have a relentless hope and strength I couldn't even fathom rivaling.
They are incredible.
Incredible means "impossible to believe." And they are. To so many people. It really is nearly impossible to believe that people who experience the hardship they do can rise every morning and be excellent when I demand for them to be excellent.
The default stance is that "those" people already have a story written for them. Well, they don't. They wake up every day to write their story until society closes the book on them or takes the pen out of their hands. They don't choose to fail. And if it seems like they do choose failure, it's really that they just don't even know their own greatness. Consider it humility to a fault.
They are my teachers. They are the wake-up call I've needed since I was born into my privileged existence. Feeling sad and sorry, I have learned, is absolutely useless. Feeling sad and sorry sapped me of the energy I needed to be something useful. I don't delve into the lives of my kids because it doesn't matter the way we might think it does. Being their shoulder to cry on, I've decided, is not the role I'm best at playing, nor is it the role I want to play. Sure, when they talk, I listen. But I don't pry. My duty is to be for them what I know I can be: someone who loves them so much I'll look past their pains and push them to reach greatness because they've proven, just by living, that they CAN.
No amount of college could prepare a person for a job like teaching. It’s much like becoming a surgical intern (yes, I watch Grey’s Anatomy when my mind has been fried by a day of teaching—which happens to be every day). You are plopped into the middle of things having read all the articles you could stuff your brain with but left without a clue about how to do what you need to do every day to be the best for your patients—your kids.
I am tired like I’ve never been tired before.
This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It can also be the most devastating and the most rewarding—all in one day, which makes it all the more exhausting.
In one day absolutely every possible thing can go so wrong that you have to do everything you can to keep from exploding into a weeping frenzy. And yet one student—that toughest student you have—can give you a look that let’s you know she’s letting you in, and it can make the whole day—that whole rotten day—magical.
It took me weeks to learn how to sleep. And I don’t mean stop working and get in bed. I mean, it took me weeks to learn how to shut my mind off when I hit that pillow so that I could actually sleep and recharge for tomorrow’s 16-plus hour day. I would drift into the thinnest layer of sleep—the kind of sleep in which you aren’t dreaming, you’re thinking concretely about things you need to do in a dreamlike manner.
I would wake up exhausted and use coffee as a surrogate for sleep.
College spoiled me. Even during the busiest of weeks, when I would look at my agenda and want to run away, I still had time to eat and even time to write in an agenda. Those were the days… the days I actually had time to plan the millions of things I needed to do.
The first month and a half of teaching and I’ve become gaunt because I don’t even have time to remember to eat—or my mind is too occupied with something that seems much more necessary than taking care of myself.
The stress of being the caretaker of 120 lives each day is overwhelming. It sounds melodramatic. But the reality is that the stakes are higher for my kids. Their time with me is critical. They are behind because of America’s failure to uphold the things it claims to value. They’re about to leave for high school—a high school that has been deemed a “dropout factory.” And I only have 9 measly months to plant in them the habits and mindsets they need to be successful when they’re thrown to the wolves. And on top of that, they need the actual skills to fight them off—alone, without support.
I recently drove by a yoga place on Brookside with a sign that says “Do something every day that scares you.” I almost chuckled to myself because every morning when I wake up, I get a strange tinge of fear that springs up from the pit of my stomach and seizes my heart. It lasts a mere moment, but in that moment I am terrified of the day that lies ahead.
What if I mess up? What if they don’t do what I need them to do today? What if they say something I don’t know how to react to? What if they need too much from me?
But then I walk through the doorway of my classroom. I unlock the door, push it to prop it open and read the words I’ve posted on it: “When you step into this classroom, you are global citizens. You are scholars. You are explorers. You are important. You are respected. You’re loved. You are the reason I am here.” And I feel recharged—regardless of the amount of sleep I did not get or the amount of coffee that didn’t work to wake me up. It is 6:15 a.m. and I am ready for the day and the chance to be for my kids—the kids that in such a short time I have learned to adore—the exact thing that they need.
About 90 percent of them, at the corner of everything they turn in to me, write: “I am smart. I am capable. I am important.” They don’t whine about it anymore. I don’t even have to remind them to do it. Every time I get the chance, though, I remind them individually that those words apply to them whether they believe it or not.
They’re starting to believe it.
I can feel it in the atmosphere of my classroom. Some days there are hints of joy in the air. When I bend down at the desk of even my most difficult children, and I tell them how smart they are, how capable they are, how much they mean to me, I can see it in their eyes that they’re starting to believe me. Even the skeptical ones. Even the ones that have been hardened by a life much too heavy for their age.
I can feel the joy in the way my students stand close to me when I’m monitoring the hallways during passing period. The way they ask to eat lunch with me in my room every single day. The way the girls play with my hair. The way the boys put their hearts on their sleeves for just me to see.
Bonds are forming in between the walls of our tiny classroom. Some of them slower than others, but they are surely forming. And no matter how exhausted I am when I leave that classroom each day, I can lie on my bed, mindlessly watching Grey’s Anatomy, knowing that all the energy I’ve spent is for the best cause—and the best humans—in the world.
These kids—every single one of them—they’re my heart. They’re the reason I get up every morning at the crack of dawn. They’re the reason I can wake up without hesitation at 5:15 a.m. and work until 9:30 p.m.
Learning is happening in my classroom. This month, I can feel it. But even more important than that, love is happening in my classroom. And that’s the thing that’s making all the difference. Students that refused to pick up a pen are writing full paragraphs now. I don’t have them all yet, but I’m working—relentlessly—to make sure that I have them all in time.
It’s an arduous process. Some days, I come home and cry for no other reason than because I am overwhelmed. Some days, I can’t stop talking to whoever will listen about the breakthroughs I’ve had. Some days—most days—by the end of it, I’m a zombie.
But every day gets better. And my kids give me so much hope.