I had to actively stop myself from skipping through the airport. It was Friday, my classroom was clean, I had finished grading about half of my finals and I was on my way home for spring break. A whole, blissful week off of school AND my sister was in the hospital, ready to have her first baby. It was even sunny outside. I couldn’t stop smiling and I was dangerously susceptible to doing some serious oversharing with random strangers in line. That happens to me sometimes when I get really excited. People ask normal questions like, “How are you?” and I have to work really hard to not tell them in great detail exactly why I am doing awesome. Really, you can sum it up just by saying, “I’m going home.”
As I spent my time in the airport, though, I was trying to figure out why exactly I get so excited about going home. I love my family dearly and I love spending time with them, but, I mean, I live in a cool place, I have some lovely people in my life, there are always exciting things to do and, generally speaking, I enjoy my existence in the Boston area. So why is it always so happy for me to go home and so devastating to go back?
I think my mother actually always gets a little nervous about me coming home, because she knows that I always have a really rough time my first week back. Not to mention the fact that she always has to watch me meltdown at the airport when she drops me off.
Which leads me back to my question: why is it so hard to go back again?
That question probably had a pretty obvious answer at the beginning of the year—the beginning of the year was… something else. There is a reason there are no blog posts from the beginning of the year. Or really from any part of the year until now. I used to use blogging to make sense of my life and to find patterns and think through experiences—it was like a more intense journal entry, or like a missionary letter. Something that only your mom reads and occasionally that one super supportive aunt or uncle. I didn’t do that type of writing at the beginning of the year, because putting those experiences to words in a presentable way for other humans was just beyond my capabilities.
Looking back now, I think I have blocked a lot of those experiences, but occasionally I get these flashbacks and I can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous the beginning was.
The first few weeks I couldn’t even get a whole class to listen to me and I had to find ways for students to do a lot of independent work that required minimal direction from me, the teacher, because, again, they didn’t listen to me. These were not my proudest moments, but I would give directions to the whole class with about 40-60% actually listening to me (and some of you might be thinking that I just didn’t employ my “wait time” well enough… but had I employed “wait time,” I would still be waiting!). I would carry on with my directions because I didn’t want to penalize the kids who were ready and willing to learn, so I would teach them what they needed for the lesson and then I would walk around and tell all the other students, the ones who weren’t listening, what they needed to do one-by-one. The students would move the tables and chairs wherever they wanted. Getting students to sit in assigned seats was a fight and I got called a lot of names that were not “Miss Pearce.”
Actually, the students don’t call me “Miss Pearce” still. They call me “Miss.” I don’t know if it is a Lawrence thing or an east coast thing, but they refer to all of us teachers, at least to our faces, as strictly “Miss” or “Mister.”
But again, they had a lot of other nicknames for me in the beginning. Especially when I gave them new assignments, or any sort of “new” thing. I don’t think they always handle change very well and they didn’t trust me to support them as they tried new things and did hard things. I was some white woman from Provo, Utah who didn’t know their lives, who didn’t know them and who they didn’t know at all. On a different level, they also knew that if they pushed hard enough, they could get teachers to quit. And then they would get away with doing less. They had seen that happen plenty of times before and they almost seemed to take pride in their handiwork. I think they looked at me like another teacher they could wear down and get rid of—another teacher that wouldn’t battle with them and for them every day. Do I blame the other teachers for not sticking around? Not at all. Do I understand why they would leave? 100%. This is in no way a negative reflection on those other teachers, just to clarify. Nor is it a criticism of the students. It is just a reality.
In a sad way, I think it actually helped me a lot when the teacher next door quit, because they saw that they hadn’t worn me down yet and maybe they started to think that they couldn’t. Sometimes I wasn’t so sure myself.
They gave it a very good go, though. I still remember the day that I told them they were required to read a book outside of class. I legitimately thought that students were going to start throwing desks or chairs at me—they got very close to that. Or, the day that I switched the desk formation. That was worse than getting a new seating chart. A lot of yelling, a lot of storming out of class angry, a lot of name-calling.
I know a few people have heard me rant about “teacher films” and stuff, but some of you might be picturing classroom scenes like in Freedom Writers where the teacher comes in and the students don’t like her, but then one day they all have this moment where they get really angry and then take turns expressing their thoughts and emotions to the teacher and their classmates who are in rival gangs. After my first week of school I re-watched that movie and I couldn’t even handle it because IT IS NOTHING LIKE THAT. You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to, but just do us both a favor and do NOT suggest to me that all I need to do is bring a Holocaust survivor into my school and suddenly all the kids will love me. Don’t tell me that what I need to do is let them write in notebooks to really express their feelings and don’t tell me that ONE DAY or ONE STELLAR LESSON will fix everything for them and send them off to bright and glorious futures. I’m not saying those things can’t happen, because hey, I believe in change and possibility. But I don’t think things usually happen in the Freedom Writers kind of way.
What Freedom Writers doesn’t show you, is that every day is a battle. You can have a great lesson one day and have students really on board with something and then have to start all over again the next day. Every single day, you have to show up, ready to handle whatever they bring to the classroom that day. Sometimes, that means their parent/significant other/friend got arrested the night before and they are a hot mess. Sometimes that means that they got evicted, or didn’t have enough food that week. Sometimes their house burned down to the ground and they lost everything. Sometimes their child was sick and they were in the hospital all night. And, yes, all of those things have actually happened to my students. Along with a lot of other things. They don’t always know how to handle all of those things, and so they don’t—they lose it a little bit. No matter how much you try to convince them that they can, in fact, relate to Hamlet, sometimes they just do not care. Because guess what? They just switched foster homes again or their mom kicked them out of the house.
I couldn’t solve all of those problems for them. The only thing that I could do was show up every day with the best lesson plan I could come up with and a chance for a fresh start. Every morning I greeted them as cheerfully as I could—I tried to let them know that no matter what they had done or said the day before, I would let them have a clean slate. And that was not always easy for me, either.
I wish I could say that I was just naturally that good of a person. But I’m not. I spent a lot of time on my knees, praying for a charity that I did not feel. Praying for a forgiving heart that I did not have. Praying for compassion that I didn’t want to give. And, begging for inspiration to know how to reach these students who were really good at pushing people away. One particularly bleak weekend, I sat down with my journal and forced myself to write something positive about each student. I tried to cling to those positive pieces with everything I had, no matter how difficult they were and no matter what they did. But I felt like Sisyphus most days. My task, however, didn’t involve a rock and a mountain. It involved hoping for myself and my students that things would get better.
I slowly worked towards a goal that never seemed to come. Every school break or holiday seemed to just derail us, too. The students would come back from a break of doing whatever they wanted and did not love the idea of structure and rules and we would have to start all over again.
Well, maybe not all over again. But we definitely had a lot of setbacks. Eventually, however, I was able to start actually teaching the whole class. Slowly, students started actually doing their work and most students actually started sitting in their assigned seats. I also started learning their patterns and how they operated. They started to learn some of my patterns. We got used to each other. I tried to be as consistent as possible, even as we tried new things. I learned lots of different arrangements and uses for four-letter words. I also learned that some of them are more hurtful than others. But, we made some progress.
They started calling me “Miss” more than the other names.
They fought with me about reading Hamlet and they complained about not being able to understand Shakespeare. But then they got used to it. They even started to realize that Hamlet had a lot going on and a lot of family drama, just like they did. They wrote poems about Ophelia and critiqued different film versions of the famous soliloquys.
They came up with their own commandments for their own versions of "Animal Farm" and they were outraged when Boxer was sent to the glue factory. They shuddered in horror at Elie's memories in Night and they wrote him a letter. They were distressed when the story ended in such an unsatisfying, yet fitting way. They thought Harry Potter was the dumbest thing in the world, but then they asked me to get copies of the other books so they could continue the series. They told me about watching the HP movies on TV on the weekends.
They told me they were sick of plays, but they read ahead in The Crucible. We read most of the play together, but by the time we got to the last act, most of the students had already finished it because they couldn’t wait. They liked that Rite of Passage had a lot of figurative language, and they liked that Speak was told in first person.
They liked being kept in suspense and they liked the surprises and twists. Sometimes I would hear them whisper things to their classmates like, “This is a good ass book, man.” Sorry for the language, but the actual words just capture it so much better.
They tell me when they don’t like my notebook prompts, they let me know when they don’t like activities. They tell me that I’m “mad whack” when I get too excited about something. Every day is still a battle. Lots of them still don’t do their work. Almost all of them sit in their assigned seats. Most of the time, they call me “Miss.”
Sometimes, they use more than their words to express things. I remember the first time a student hugged me. Which is normally a totally not okay thing for teachers/students, but this time, it really was. I also won't soon forget the student looking me in the eyes as he poured his drink on me. Or having a door slammed on me. Or the fight that happened in my classroom. Things like that happen and it used to take me a lot longer to recover. Sometimes, you go to the bathroom and cry for a second. Then you make it look like you didn't and you go back out. They can sense weakness, you know.
Sometimes when things like that happen, they think you won't come back. They think it will be the last straw. When you do come back, they ask you if you are okay. They tell you they are sorry and they tell you they are angry that someone, one of their own, would disrespect you like that. Most of them are ready to stick up for you. They get angry for you.
In the beginning they didn't react like that. There was more indifference and, maybe, some mild concern. Then, a little more compassion and indignation. Now, protectiveness. Maybe even a little respect. Their reactions have changed throughout the year. They call me "Miss" and tell me they are sorry. When it was them, and even when it wasn't.
With one quarter left of the year, they know that I will always say “good morning” and they usually say it back. They know that I will get excited about English-y stuff and that they will have to tell me that I’m weird. Sometimes they get excited, too, though they would never admit that. They know that no matter what names they call me, I will still work with them, will still give them second chances and will still keep coming back. They know that I will expect them to work every day. They know I will listen to their problems and woes, and that I will sympathize, even as I push them to not let their problems keep them from achieving. “Wait time” actually works now. They have also learned that, sometimes, when they are being particularly unruly and when I’m about to lose my cool, I look up at the ceiling and take a second to regain some sense of composure. And sometimes when I’m doing that, they actually tell each other to be quiet. In the beginning of the year, that would have never happened.
When I left for this vacation, they told me to “be safe,” which I think is one of their most sincere well-wishes. Safety isn’t always something they come by and they hope that for the people they care about.
In the beginning, I would cry every time I had to go back to Boston. The names, the daily battle, the anger (theirs and mine) all seemed too much to go back to. Going home gave me a lovely respite. I was just Tara and people were nice and I spent time with my family who loves me. I could let my hair down and just be me, because people didn’t need me to be anybody else.
Going back, though, I needed to become “Miss” again. I had to be there in every way, ready to forgive and love, ready to support and encourage. I had to be ready to teach people who didn’t always want to be taught. The tears flowed, because being “Miss” was a lot for me sometimes and the wounds from the battle hadn’t healed all the way. I cried for them, because I knew that no matter how hard I tried to teach them English, they still had a lot of their own battles to fight and they still had a lot to overcome on their own. I could only do so much for them, and I wasn’t even sure I was capable of doing my part in all of this. I selfishly cried for me, but I cried for them, too.
The daily battle of being “Miss” still gets me down sometimes. I’m not going to lie about that. Most days are hard, with little specks of good. Things have changed a lot since the beginning of the year, and I used to cry every time I left from home to go back. Maybe this time I won’t, because now, they call me “Miss.”