Just about twenty years ago this month, I was finishing up my first year teaching.
It was a success — mostly. I was much too young at 21 to be teaching high school students in Ontario, where the system at the time when to Grade 13 and many of my students were 18 or 19. A couple of students who had postponed doing their Grade 13 year were actually older than I was. I felt insecure and over my head the whole year. I had no concept of appropriate boundaries and I got far too involved in the lives of my students and a lot of hurtful things happened to me that year. But lots of good things happened too, and it seemed a relatively easy way of making far better money than I could do at anything else I was qualified for. Plus I got summers off. So I kept at it for the next several years.
I taught high school (and sometimes junior high) English and History for eleven years — four years at a private Christian boarding school in Ontario, another year at the same kind of school in Alberta, five years at the school I’d attended myself, a small government-funded church school back home in St. John’s, and then half a year (before going on what turned out to be a very long maternity leave) at a former Catholic school-turned-public-school, the year after the Newfoundland government ended denominational education. I taught the few things I knew to a wide a variety of students. Some days I hated it; most days I liked it a lot. I had a Grade Eight class one year that was a foretaste of purgatory; I had several classes that were so much fun I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do this.
All during those years, my working hours were consumed by a swirl of lesson plans, papers to be graded, classroom discipline — all the minutiae of school life. Threaded throughout the busy days that made up those years, there were moments that stood out like sequins on black velvet, the moments that intrigued me, that made me catch my breath and almost broke my heart. They were the moments of real connection with students, the moments when I caught brief glimpses into their private worlds, their private hurts.
I remember the day one girl whose father had died a violent death (and lived a violent life) stopped by my desk to ask, “Miss, do you think my dad will be in heaven?”
I remember the boy who was so angry he wrote “Life sucks. School sucks” in his journal, rows on rows of the same four words, day after day for months.
I remember coming to school the morning after Kurt Cobain died, meeting the eyes of the boy I’d thought of the minute I heard the news, the boy I knew would be devastated because Kurt was his idol, the singer whose lyrics brought meaning to the chaos of a young life.
These were the moments that made the job worthwhile for me. They were so few and so fleeting, sandwiched in between the everyday mundane duties of getting and giving an education. I longed for more time, more wisdom, a different role — something that would allow me to capture those moments and make them the centrepiece of my day, give them the attention they deserved. I guess I wanted to live in those moments, to make a difference in them.
After seven years out of the classroom I went back to work, teaching the same textbooks, the same curriculum, in a place completely different from any I’d taught in before. I didn’t mean to go back to teaching — I wanted to do something different, something that would give me a chance to live in the moments rather than in the classroom routine. But then I found a place where I could do both, and that’s where I am now.
Here’s the thing that amazes me: these moments, these moments of raw and frightening vulnerability, happen every day now. And most of the time, I have enough time and space, and enough confidence, that I can step aside from the routine of books and papers and tests, and actually listen to what a young person is saying. My average class size is about ten students, officially — some days I might only have two or three in a particular class. I am no longer overwhelmed by crowds and deadlines and ungraded papers. I have time to listen to the fear, the hope, the story they’re telling me. And every one of them has a story — these are the kids who didn’t make it in high school, yet who had enough courage and faith to come back and try again. Their stories are not buried deep, reluctantly coaxed out. Their stories lie right on the surface, begging to be heard.
I can’t tell you these stories, although almost every day I want to, because it would violate the confidentiality of the students I’m teaching now, even though most of the moments don’t occur in “confidential” settings. They are blurted out in the middle of the classroom, an excuse for absence or lateness, an offhand comment tossed over the shoulder. The moments that make me catch my breath, that almost break my heart — they happen every day now.
And almost every day, I have the time to listen. To pay attention. To say something that might — or might not — help. If I don’t find the right words to say, that’s OK. I’ll still be here tomorrow, and there will be other moments.
I wish I had words that could convey what a gift this is. When people ask me about my work I just smile and say, “I love my job,” and wish those words could carry something of the intensity of what I feel when I enter my classroom every day. They can’t, of course. Nobody knows how I feel when I walk into that building, but the only word for it is blessed. I am blessed, and I hope I have the opportunity to bless. I am living in the moments that used to pass me by. I truly can’t believe how lucky I am.