It’s happening again. Yes. Again. As a matter of fact, it will happen this, of all days, Friday. I will wake up before the dawn, reacquaint myself with near-forgotten rituals such as doing my hair and putting on my make-up, leave my house as the neighborhood sleeps, cruise through my commute, unlock my classroom, and welcome students. Yes. It’s the first day of school. And I say, “Bring it.”
After a taxing, trying 2012-2013 school year during which I experienced a mystery illness that left me weak, sore, and anemic; burn-out; and a strong desire to sleep– so much so that I would pass out at my desk on my prep period only to come home and pass out again. I trained a student in each class to call the school secretary just in case I had to run out of the room for an “emergency”, and one day I had to run out of a meeting because of an “emergency” (as one student said, “You drove all the way to work just to vomit? That sucks.”) My response to my very good students, who I was very lucky to have during this time, slowly deteriorated to, “Me-no care-oh” (translated: “I don’t care what you do, just turn it in.”). Doctor’s appointments and going home sick impeded my ability to be a good advisor to my book club and my Academic Decathlon team. The kids had to rearrange their schedules and find other teachers who could take over for the day. Once again, the AcaDec materials weren’t ordered correctly (cough, cough, district office, cough, cough), and we didn’t get our materials until late October. Competition is in January. I questioned myself. I knew I was not the teacher or advisor I could be, but I couldn’t muster the energy to be that person.
My questioning deepened after I attended a Common Core Conference in Monterey and the keynote speaker, Kate Kinsella, chastised teachers who had pictures of the Eiffel Tower and posters of kittens dangling by a paw from a tree that say, “Hang in there!”. There is no place in the classroom for these non-academic distractors! My co-workers gasped, glancing my way. In lieu of the Eiffel Tower, there is a big poster of Central Park over my desk, next to my Kandinsky poster, over my Warhol Marilyn Monroe -inspired rubber ducky picture. There are no posters of kittens, but there is one of a silly-looking frog that says, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.” This doesn’t take into account all of the rubber ducks that line my desk and cupboards, the student art, my travel postcards, and the cutouts of Toy Story characters that had been on a Kleenex box. One of my TA’s cut them out once it was empty and made me a collage. My room was clear, undeniable evidence that I was not A Serious Teacher. Fortunately, Kinsella also alienated every other teacher in the room by telling us to do our “damn jobs” and implored Social Studies teachers to actually teach kids something. However, once made, the wound was slow to heal.
It was a challenging year. Too tired to be creative or care too much, I stopped blogging. There was nothing really to say except express my own uncertainty. I turned to my books and novels. I read and read and read. There just didn’t seem to be enough words that I could gobble up. I did not want to write or create. My book clubs with my friends were the life lines that kept me afloat. They forced me to not recede to wherever it was that I could possibly go. My husband, stymied by the fact that I requested white bread, made me endless bowls of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. During my two-week spring break, I broke tradition and stayed home.
Slowly, the universe shifted. I learned that I would be teaching AP Literature the 2013-2014 school year. The fact that I was chosen to teach it was a boost to my self-esteem as an educator, but I was still plagued with doubt. I still smarted from Kinsella’s implication that I am not a Serious Teacher and considered ways to make my classroom more “academic”– befitting of an AP teacher.
The universe, it seemed, wasn’t done with me yet. One day I sat reading my students’ personal statements, allowing me to glimpse into their real lives and thoughts. One student wrote about her two inspiring teachers: her Spanish teacher and…. me. She wrote about how much I encouraged her and challenged her, and blah, blah, blah. “Is she trying to butter me up and get an “A”?” I asked myself. The next line proved that she was not: “In Ms. L’s room she has a poster of Central Park over her desk. I look at it everyday. This inspires me to do well and be successful in life so I can go visit wonderful, magical places in the world like Central Park.” With tears welled up in my eyes, I decided that Kate Kinsella could suck it. My student, on the other hand, earned her “A”. And a hug.
As I was leaving on the last of school, I glanced in the mailroom. There, on the floor, was a delivery from the US Academic Decathlon. My materials for this upcoming year arrived– early.
After a positive end to the school year, gaining back my health and energy, much collaboration for cross-curricular teaching with a history teacher, much fun in Ireland, the UK, and Michigan, much learning at the AP training, and planning a curriculum that includes short stories, poetry, Like Water for Chocolate, Oedipus The King, Death of a Salesman, Othello, Pride and Prejudice, Their Eyes Were Watching God, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, and John Trimble’s Writing With Style:A Conversation on the Art of Writing, I am ready for this school year.