Becoming Ms. Martin: How and Why I became an English Teacher

Being an adult means eating dark chocolate with breakfast.

Or at least, that’s what it meant as I sat down to journal this morning between bites of oatmeal and sips of green tea. Like every morning, my last bite of oatmeal created a sense of loss on my taste buds, which prompted me, like every morning, to lick the bowl with desperation (another perk of adulthood, at least when you’re living alone). But this morning, not even that could banish my longing. And so I savored two pieces of Ghirardelli Twilight Delight and now I feel much better.

All this and much more has become commonplace in my life over the past two months. July brought many changes. I moved out of my condo that I shared with one of my dearest friends and moved into a small one-bedroom house that I share with me, myself, and my pet fish. I quit riding my bike to work and class and started driving my car. I left my job as a barista and found something more personally fulfilling: teaching. With my new job, I secured health and dental insurance, a salary, a contract, and 80 middle schoolers. I stopped flashing my student ID at Albertson’s on Saturdays to get the 10 percent discount. When the cashier commented on the pile of 99-cent notebooks I stacked atop the counter—”Back to school! Are you at the U?”—I replied, “Oh no, I’m a teacher. These are for my kids.”

My kids. I never thought I’d be watching over 80 6th-through-9th graders only two months after graduating from college. But now, I spend five days a week in the company of pre-and-mid-pubescents, loving them, hating them, and somewhere in there, teaching them, though I think I’m learning more from them than they are from me. For this political science major who once had her heart set on diplomacy and NGO work, this decision may seem tangential. Yet, when I saw the ad on Craigslist and sent in my résumé, I did so with something stronger than confidence. It was clairvoyance. I knew without knowing why that I was meant to do it. That becoming “Ms. Martin” was a critical juncture along my journey.

That doesn’t mean I acted purely from some greater calling within myself. Two things prompted me to begin scouring the internet for something new. One, I felt over-worked, bored, and unfulfilled at my former job. I could only make so many lattes and pour so many Dragoon IPAs before I started craving something more meaningful. Two, I needed more money. Not receiving a scholarship to pay for my yoga teacher training, as beneficial as it is to my personal growth, is also expensive. I was prepared to pay for the training, but it would drain my savings. So, I began the Craigslist comb, and soon enough, there it was: A charter school on the south side of Tucson was looking for a junior high English Language Arts teacher. A couple weeks later, that teacher was me.

My classroom bookshelf

The library I inherited in my classroom 


Now I go to bed at 10 each night and wake up at 5:45, giving me enough time to shower, eat, meditate, and feed my fish before zipping off to school. I leave the house with four bags—my purse, my lunch box, my bag of ungraded papers, and my bag of yoga clothes for after work. I pull into the parking lot around 7:40, sign in at the office, and grab my attendance sheet. First hour, 6th grade, starts at 8:30. Each class is an hour, and each hour is different. The 6th graders come in sleepy some days and rowdy the others. The 7th graders either want to talk all hour or work like angels. The 8th graders either can’t stop derailing the class or can’t stop asking questions. Out of the five classes that I teach, only 9th grade is consistent. There are only eight students in the class because most of their peers left the charter school to go to standard high schools. They are quiet and reserved, but we have a good time together. Because no time is wasted on discipline or classroom management in my 9th grade class, I allow us to stray. We take alternative paths through weekends and pop music and idioms, but I am always able to use our digressions as fuel for discussion. I’ve learned that learning is most engaging when it resembles real life. And for my students, real life is rich and dramatic and tumultuous, full of change and discovery and loss. For some of my students, real life is like a horror story from the streets of Tijuana.

Teaching where I do has proven a remarkably humbling and eye-opening experience.  Many of my students are from Mexican families who have been divided along the Borderlands. Some have been torn from their parents to live with tías and tíos on the American side of the border. Some have lost their fathers to bloodshed in Mexican streets, American streets, Tucson streets. Others have never met their baby brothers because the toddlers could not survive the journey to the U.S.. Others return to Mexico frequently, missing days of school at a time. Their lives look nothing like those of the characters I fell in love with as a kid. And as a white middle class woman, there is little I can draw from to help me comprehend the totality of their experiences, each with their own moments of sorrow, struggle, and success. All I have is Arizona pulsing through my veins and Humanity drumming in my heart. I know the tingle of tamarind on my tongue and the singe of the sun on my skin. I know the crunch of corn tortilla chips and the smell of carne asada in the kitchen. I know the ache of losing a grandmother. I know the weariness of being far from home. I will never claim to know what my students endure, but I hope to gain insight into what they overcome. As their teacher, I hope to help them turn all they have lived into fuel so that they may combine that fuel with knowledge and, like a fire, feed their own self-actualization.

I realized at some point in college that that is what I’m passionate about: helping others, particularly youth, access and use the opportunities available to them to give them agency, to self-actualize. I know I am only one young, completely inexperienced teacher in one, small school on Tucson’s south side, but I also know that on our best days, my students and I create something powerful together. We create a ripple somewhere in the universe by learning with and teaching one another, and that ripple joins with another and yet another until, one day, the universe is hit by a hurricane, and a disadvantaged, immigrant youth defies all the odds and not only passes the AIMS test, but goes to college.

That’s why I responded to that Craigslist ad two months ago. That’s why I want to teach yoga. That’s why I don’t want to work in the State Department or UNESCO.  Because, for me, a classroom of kids finding empowerment in the words of Sandra Cisneros and a studio of yogis singing om to the sound of their unified hearts are where the tremors start. These places and these moments are the axes of change, where the Earth splits and the plates shift and the world is reincarnated—not always better, but undoubtedly different.

 

 

 

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8 Comments

Filed under Prose, Teaching

8 responses to “Becoming Ms. Martin: How and Why I became an English Teacher

  1. Linda

    Hello Savannah,
    This essay is beautiful! Your grandma was right. She is quite proud of you – you know. She is my auntie – so I love her as you do. I was raised in Arizona and know how you feel about that area. Memories there will always be a part of me no matter where I am. I also understand your passion for teaching. I have been teaching a long time. I have taught in elementary an secondary settings. Now I teach at Ball State University in Indiana and my passion for teaching is still with me. I love sharing that passion with new developing teachers as I watch them grow and learn. Keep writing; that will encourage your students to also write.
    Love,
    Linda

  2. Troy Schilperoort

    Always a pleasure to see new material on your blog. Glad to see you’re doing well.

  3. Kimberly Garcia

    This post really means a lot to me, first of all, congrats cause you have chosen a different path from what you were planning, that requires to be brave and confident :) !!. I’m glad you have found something that is making you happy. I also want to thank you for your sensitivity, it breaks my heart each time I read or hear foreign people discussing migration problems in Mexico, it’s really really hard to know that your country can’t provide enough opportunities for their own people, so they have to go somewhere else, leave everything they have and even expose their kids to any kind of difficult and horrible things, instead of being at home playing, with a lovely united family like every kid deserves. Fortunately there are sensitive people who understand that not everyone has had the same opportunities and facilities in life, and who are willing to help overcome the disadvantages these kids have had. Thank you for being one of them :) !!. Keep the great work and congrats!!!!

  4. Gma

    As usual, a wonderful essay. You will go far as a teacher if you keep up the sincerity you are feeling at this junction in your life.

  5. Vicki Westling

    Savannah, there is so much yet to learn and to teach – your passion for giving is a jewel, treasure it.

    Vicki D. Westling, Author http://www.vickiwestling.com vickiwestling@hotmail.com Tweet @vickiwestling

    Date: Sun, 21 Sep 2014 17:51:04 +0000 To: vickiwestling@hotmail.com

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