Spanish translation available at: http://bellaciao.org/es/spip.php?article5442
I came across this piece while shuffling through some old papers. I wrote it over 16 years ago, and it struck me how essential its central message still is today, perhaps even more so than when I put dot-matrix inkjet to side-perforated paper. My natural tendency as a writer was to try to fiddle with it, to "update" it and make it better. I'm resisting, mostly, except to say that one of my first thoughts was that we must be crazy to still be doing this 16 long years later, having weathered so many storms and crises. Still crazy after all these years (apologies to Paul)--or perhaps lucky, to be able just to stand still in the maelstrom. The original text speaks enough for itself.
One of the thrills of teaching, and also one of its pitfalls, is the sense of being on a roller coaster, of navigating the ups and downs of children's lives and trying to ride along with them. When I interview prospective teachers who say they want to teach because "I just love kids," I usually pass. Not because I don't love kids. But there is a giddy, collegiate attraction to a mythic childhood here that strikes me as a bit shallow. Childhood ranges much deeper, from the wide-eyed wonder of new discovery to the stubborn, selfish anger of unmet desire. Loving kids includes a mutual respect, a true
sense of their range of capabilities. Someone who does not remember teasing and being teased in the schoolyard will make a lousy teacher.
Riding the roller coaster can be exhilarating, depressing, scary--each in its turn. Nobody needs help understanding how rewarding it can be to watch a child grow and learn. Children and pets, after all, are the only ones that love us unconditionally. But the troughs are harder to explain, and harder to navigate. It is frightening to have to explain to a child that you are just another passenger when he wants you to control the ride. When a child begs you to do something to get out of going to his father's, in defiance of a court order, you have to break his heart and tell him you are not the Rock
of Gibraltar he mistook you for. And there is nothing quite as devastating as giving your heart and soul to help a child, only to have an overwhelmed parent blame you instead for contributing to the problem. In teaching as in the rest of life, it is easier not to get involved.
But being involved is what it's all about. You can't get off halfway through the ride. Yes, teaching has its dark days. I remember one such gray morning, the day after the uprising in L.A. I was leading a group of kids in from the bus, all giggling and bubbly in the innocent ignorance of their age, when I thought with sobering clarity about their prospects for the future. Here they were, a mixture of black, latino and white kids, mostly poor. And L.A. was as much about class as about race, a point the media glossed over. In the wake of L.A., I cried to think of what awaited these kids, my kids, I though, in the narrow but nurturing possessiveness that teachers adopt. I was suddenly struck with the realization that, at the age of four or five, many of these kids were already behind the eight ball. Statistics flooded my head as I calculated the odds, straining to hide my despair from their eager, knowing eyes.
This day, and many others, I have turned to memories of the other half of the ride, of the exhilaration and reward of having made your impression felt, at least on someone. Every teacher wants to be remembered, to be a fixture in a child's past that keeps on living and growing as the memory is passed on. But I have no story yet to compare with one of my mother's, one which, after forty-five years of raising and teaching children, she can still call the one that tugs most at her emotions and renews her calling.
One day my mother received a phone call, long distance, with a vaguely familiar voice at the other end. It's funny how we can sometimes wade through memory's tricks, like you can always see yourself in those portraits of what you will look like in twenty years. "Hello, Mrs. Welch? This is Miriam Irving. Do you remember me?"
I had to laugh when I heard it. Miriam Irving had been in my mother's kindergarten class ages before. I had to admire the sense of purpose that gave her the strength to call despite the insecurity of, perhaps, not being remembered. I could never make that call, I thought. Miriam didn't know, but it was silly to think that my mother would have forgotten.
Miriam was about my age, and as children growing up, we had played together for a time. She and her brothers were roughly the same age as the youngest of my mother's children. They were one of very few black families in Salem back then, and though our friendship grew out of our mother's, I think in her white liberal way my mother thought it was special for us to have black friends. We stayed over and went on trips together, one summer in particular. At one party we were running around the house and ran smack into each other, my tooth smashing into the top of her head. Our brothers would tease us about liking each other. I guess we did, my first girlfriend of sorts. Her head healed, but I still have an ever-so-slightly discolored tooth in my smile, a trophy of the time we spent together.
But the memories flashing through my mother's mind were not the one Miriam called about. And that is the beauty of teaching, and of memory. You are always a bit surprised by what stays with a kid, when you remember things differently. "Do you remember a time in Kindergarten," Miriam began, her voice swelling with emotion. My mother's eyes were filling up even before hearing the story, bulging under the accumulated weight of previously untapped memories.
"I was playing with the chalkboard, and I got chalk all over my arms," Miriam continued. "I sat there and said, 'Oh good, now I can be white like the other kids.'" My mother remembered instantly, her mind carried back to a time in the late sixties, back in the day when black pride scared the FBI so much they killed the Panthers in their beds. "You made me wash up. And you said, 'No, honey, you're not white. You're black, and you should be proud.' And you made me stand up in circle time and tell all the kids that I wasn't white, I was black, and I was proud to be black. Do you remember that?"
Again, a chuckle. Of course she remembered. But she couldn't have known, as Miriam knew she couldn't. "I'm not sure you ever knew how much that meant to me." True enough, until now. It's funny, my mother thought, you do things not for the future but because it's the right thing to do. Now, twenty years and thousands of miles gone, it leaps out of nowhere, like a bolt out of the blue. "Anyway," Miriam continued, "I'm getting married next month and I'd like you to come." My mother cried when she hung up.
She went, of course, on the overnight bus to Virginia, where they had resettled. She changed in the washroom in the station, a teary reunion with quick goodbyes and not enough catching up, and was on her way back north. Miriam sent pictures when she had the baby, and then another I think, but we fell out of touch again.
I don't think she really knew, just as she said my mother didn't, the impact of her reaching back like that. Courageous, I thought, daring to be forgotten, calling back across the years. Sometimes they do come back. She didn't know what we were doing now, couldn't have foreseen that we were trying to build an alternative model for education, one that tries to cross lines of class, race and culture. She didn't know; she had no goal but to do the right thing, which makes the story all the more powerful. It is a gift. I turn it over in my mind like a worry stone, wearing its edges smooth when the roller coaster gets rough. I hope to be around long enough to tell such a story as my own, so others might be as proud of me as I am of my mother, and of Miriam. I would like Miriam to know how many lives it has touched, both directly and indirectly, by renewing inspiration. I think I'll keep this job.