At school's midpoint I'm exhausted, frustrated, and distracted by a hundred or so fish nibbling on my lines, while papers to grade stack up like one of those illustrations for the national debt -- all the way to the moon and back.
I comfort myself with the thought that I'll get it done. Haven't I always gotten done this teaching thing -- this half science and 100% art thing -- for going on 20 something years now?
But every year it's the same. Halfway into it I wonder how am I ever going to reel in all these lines I've let loose in the pond of learning. Truth be told, high school teaching is an absurd calling. It's Sisyphus trying to inch his boulder up a mountain with dozens of adolescents hanging on it, all the while asking, "Whassup, fool?"
Little wonder that in recent movies, teachers come across as babbling burnouts or malevolent sociopaths. Of course, I'm ignoring a whole cottage industry of filmdom, the inspirational-teacher movie wherein said teacher motivates the previously unmotivated in time -- always just under an hour and a half -- for the big showdown. Life would be pretty if it were so.
In real life, teaching means long hours, when despite all your training and knowledge, you are often thrashing around in the dark. Then a light bulb goes on. Sometimes over the students' heads but just as likely over the teacher's head.
Oh, I imagine I have inspired some students along the way, but I'm not fool enough to believe that's all I've done. I've uninspired my share, too.
Perhaps, it's the cold but lately my failures, not my successes, keep popping into my mind. Their faces rise like helium balloons, their eyebrows curled like two question marks, perpetually asking why?
During Christmas break, my family and I were dining at a Mexican restaurant when one of the waiters sauntered up to our table and introduced himself. Turned out he was one of my students from about twelve years ago. He was pleased to see me and when he asked if I remembered him, I, of course, lied and said yes.
After all these years, I forget their names the minute the door hits the jamb on the last day of school, but usually I recall faces. Yet his face was so different, I didn't recognize him. But he did remind me of one of my greatest failures, a student I had about the same time.
This boy was in my newcomer class made up of immigrant students who had just arrived in the U.S. He had a face that loved to smile and was always a quick one with a quip. Though he was one of our slower students academically, he was always good at any games we played, but forcing him to write was like chaining him to a hundred-ton ball. Oh, how his face would drop if he had to sit still in his desk and write.
To this day, I can't explain the why of it, but somehow we got crossways. And I got the fool notion that what this kid needed was some tough love delivered by yours truly. He needed to get with the program, and I was just the teacher to do it, even if I had to drag him screaming into the belly of this beast called English.
It didn't work, my being hard on him. It clammed him up, completely shut him down. He refused to learn and later stopped coming to class altogether.
But he was not a dropout. He was a kickout. I kicked him out. Oh, maybe he had problems in other classes. And maybe he wouldn't have made it anyway. But just maybe he could have. I've seen enough students who have come to us barely literate in their own language somehow grasp this crazy, contradictory English language.
The last time I saw him he was a street vendor, a paletero, hawking paletas (Popsicles) near the school. I knew then that I'd failed him. Still to this day, he is like a pebble in my shoe.
But don't get me wrong. I don't wear his memory like a hairshirt to remind me of my utter baseness. I don't dwell on my failures, but for my students I have a duty to think about them because, strange as it might seem, I like teaching -- this messy work of half inspiration, sometimes 100% desperation.
Yet, I have to admit, it's never been easy for me. While, I guess, there are some who were born to teach, I'm not one of them. I didn't get into teaching because I had an overwhelming desire to be around teenagers. In fact, just the opposite was true. I figured I could stand them until something else better came along, but, the truth is, at the end of every school year, I feel blessed to have been around so many fine young men and women.
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