Never in my life has winter break seemed so necessary. Not even when I was recovering from my first semester in the stifling libraries of Sciences-Po, my eyes aching from staring intensely at the pages of academic articles and mes dissertations, did this small window of repose feel so crucial. Teaching is really fucking hard.
I grew up in classrooms. During my elementary years, I went immediately from my own school to the larger, more intimidating campuses of my uncles and my mother. The bell rang, I got on the bus, and I bounced and chattered through every stop until there was only me and the driver. Then I moved up to the front of the bus to chat with her (or was it a him?) as we neared the middle school. From there I would either go to my uncle’s classroom on the middle school campus, or walk over to the high school on the other end of the football field. I sat out the remainder of the afternoons in the back of the room watching my uncle or my mother teach. My most vivid memories are of my mom’s Advanced Placement English classes. The Scarlet Letter. “The Graduate.” “The Fall of the House of Usher.” These were the works of my childhood, the prose, intertwined with the melancholy voices of Simon and Garfunkel, weaving a refrain in the background of my thoughts. I don’t know when I fell in love with literature and words and storytelling. But those countless days spent in the back of my mother’s classroom listening to her dive head first into the often dark and gruesome tales of humanity had something to do with it. They also had something to do with me becoming a teacher.
The adults in my life modeled teaching, and so I mimicked them. As soon as my little sister could take on the role of my pupil I set up a school for her in the basement. I wrote on the chalkboard my parents had bought us as she sat in a red antique desk copying my letters and numbers onto paper. We practiced the ABCs and counting to 10. We learned colors, sang songs, played games. It was all a game, really, but for me it was very real. I was her teacher and she was my student. I loved every minute of it.
I would not say today that I love every minute of teaching. On the contrary, I spend much of my time being very uncomfortable, especially when it comes to discipline. I’ve found that yelling at students actually makes me feel dirty. It has somewhat of a dementor effect, as if some dark force swooped down upon me and sucked out my soul. I try not to yell or “be mean,” and in turn my students take advantage of my compassion. I’m learning, though, to use discipline in a more constructive and effective way, and as I become more comfortable with it, to use it as a tool rather than a whip. It still requires and immeasurable amount of energy, though. Teaching takes all of me, from lesson planning, to grading, to being up in front of a class for five hours a day. I plan five different hour-long presentations everyday, five days a week, for an audience that doesn’t want to be there and doesn’t want to listen. If you didn’t get it the first time, teaching is really fucking hard.
That is why these two weeks of break are so needed. That is also why it’s been three months since I posted anything on this blog. By the end of the day, I’ve been talking for so long that I have no words left. Each day I am emptied. Only yoga and food and booze and sleep can replenish me. Well, only that and my students.
Ironically enough, the very soul-sucking, heart-wrenching, energy-depleting creatures that torment me all day are also the source of my happiness. Just as they make every day miserable, they make every day worth it. I live for the small moments—a student grasping a concept for the first time, a group of boys who are typically fighting working happily together, a student finding a typo in my own writing (we call them “word crimes”), a girl who used to be rude and disruptive slowly transforming into a kind and caring young woman, hugs and hellos from little ones who aren’t even my students, baking 84 Christmas cookies and watching my students eat them gleefully. The list is endless.
And so, during these two weeks, the truth is I will never set aside my teacher hat. I will think of my students, my lessons, books I’m teaching next quarter, things I need to do, activities to plan. I will talk about teaching at Christmas dinner, over coffee with old friends, here on this blog. I will tell stories and relive the worst and best moments of the past five months. Ms. Martin will not disappear. But in all honesty, she’s always been there, and she’s here to stay.
Smiles and all the best,