"The best thing one can do when it's raining is to let it rain."

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

We are Phoenix

At the end of the hallway, on the way to the teacher bathrooms, loomed the words, “In order to write the book you want to write, in the end you have to become the person you need to become to write that book.” That Junot Dias quote was my daily chastisement for a long time. It motivated me, but also reminded me of my deficits. I think I always knew I would, and could, make it through my two years of Teach for America. But, I wasn’t sure who I would become in the process, who I would be on the other end.  The quote taunted and motivated, because it was inevitable that I would become someone—or rather, I would become a different version of myself, and I didn’t know what sort of something I would become. I didn't know what sort of tale mine would be. I wasn’t sure of the ending. A tragedy? A comedy? A triumph? A Mark Twain-ian, satirical commentary? Perhaps, like all great stories, mine would have moments of each. And I could become the person to tell that multifaceted story. Or, it would be a one-sided, simple story of failure. My failure to become who I needed to become. 

“Is Boston your final destination?” asked the lady at the counter. In the context of flying and layovers and airports, it should have been a simple question to answer. In the context of moving to a new place, for an undetermined amount of time, however, the question was not that simple. I stumbled over an affirmative response, feeling troubled by it all, wondering why she felt the need to phrase the question in that particular way. “Will Boston be my final destination? How long will I be in this place? What am I getting myself into?” were all questions I posed to myself as I made my way to the gate.

I had a window seat that allowed me one last view of the mountains. Something about the mountains made the tears come. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the last time I was away from those mountains, it was the best, but hardest time of my life. I had a small feeling that this next stretch of time would be similar in some ways.

I may or may not have cried myself through most of that flight (a kind flight attendant may or may not have brought me tissues), as I contemplated my new life and my unknown future. I think I was also still nursing a bit of a broken heart over having to say no to something I really wanted.
Leaving family, friends, home, security, and the known was hard enough. Finding myself in a *difficult* work environment took the hard to the next level. I use the term “difficult,” in the most euphemistic of ways. Tears were my constant companions in those days. If not tears, then certainly frustration, anger, and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.

My mom loves to tell the story of my first day of work, because it basically consisted of me sobbing wordlessly into the phone, huddled in the corner of my classroom, while she waited for me to stop crying long enough to tell her what happened. I wish I could say it was all uphill from there, but it wasn’t like that at all.

I used to drive with the windows down on my way home from school, because all of my emotions threatened to suffocate me in the small, enclosed space of my car. I needed space and air--I needed to remember to breathe.

I look back at the beginning, and I chuckle a little bit at the moments that brought me so much satisfaction, and the moments that crushed me.  They seem so inconsequential in retrospect. In those times, however, they weren’t. Simple things, like students sitting in an assigned seat, or a student not addressing me as the b-word anymore, or a student actually completing an assignment made me feel like the champion of the world.  I remember the first day that nobody swore at me. The entire day. Those small moments were the biggest victories. And, on the flip side, when those moments weren’t happening, the failures overwhelmed me. 

Memories of successful moments, luckily, overshadow the many negative ones leading up to the more lasting, long-term successes that I encountered.  Sometimes the negative memories still come to mind—no matter how unbidden and suppressed. I don’t care to put labels or descriptors to all of those, but I remember the feelings.  

Hoping is necessary, and dangerous, in such circumstances. I hoped so much, but the hope wasn’t tempered enough and I found the hope shattering far too often. Left with shards of hope, I would try to piece it back together, but it wasn’t ever quite strong enough not to shatter again.
I had an idea of the teacher I wanted to be in that school. I had an idea of the strength and hope that I wanted to feel. But I didn’t have it. I knew the kind of story I wanted to be able to write, but I wasn’t there. Yet.

I spent more time, especially that first year, feeling crushed and broken. Certainly not strong or hopeful.

Time, apparently, does heal most, if not all, wounds, because I can now laugh about many of the experiences I had in those first months, though I can’t say I found them overly funny at the time. Like the time it was really hot and the lack of air conditioning in the school drove one student to take off her shirt in the middle of class, leaving her in her bra, as she prepared to storm out. Not funny when you are the one trying to figure out how to handle that situation, but very funny months after the fact when you aren’t responsible for that anymore. Then you remember that this particular student has since dropped out… and you feel the negative things again…

Or, one of my absolute favorites, when a student spent her five minutes of silent writing time elaborating on all the reasons she hated me. As part of the daily routine, I let students share what they wrote, and she, of course, chose to share hers. She had some very vivid and colorful descriptions—which was also the feedback I gave her after she finished reading for the class. I laugh about it now, but I wasn’t really laughing then. She also ended up dropping out, but she still comes by the school to say hi sometimes and she greets me very warmly. We ended on a better note than we started, but she chose a different path, and I could do nothing more than stand by and watch her make decisions that she was too young to be making on her own. With her mother in prison, and a grandmother that was less-than-attentive, she had no choice but to make those decisions alone.

Being cursed out, or threatened, or raged at, criticized, or any number of behaviors that used to disrupt my state of mind, do not have the same effect that they once did. Sometimes I am saddened at the hardening that has taken place in me, and at the loss of innocence, but I’m tougher. I’m more resilient. I have been forced to push the boundaries of my love and hope.

Nothing makes you question yourself more than feeling unforgivingly angry at an adolescent that has every reason to merit your compassion, help, and guidance. Nothing makes you want to learn to love more than feeling like you don’t have any more love to give. Nothing makes you feel worse than realizing that you have been withholding the love that you should be giving, and the love that is needed. There were times when my charity failed, and I failed because of it.

There are a lot of interactions and relationships that I am still working through and navigating in my thoughts and memories. I have hope for future healing.  Which is probably the biggest thing—hope for future healing, and hope for the future. Hope for more charity.

I remember vividly how it felt to feel hope again for the first time, and I remember what it felt like to feel actually happy. I remember what it felt like to not be afraid in my own classroom.  I remember how it felt to experience all of those things, and everything in between, and I remember the void that it is when you don’t feel hope or happiness or security. They are tangible absences, much like the lack of sun in a New England winter.

I don’t think there were any significant moments, or climactic events that really turned things around. I think it was more a process of becoming. Becoming what they needed me to be. Becoming the teacher who wouldn’t flinch in their rage, who would push forward when they pushed back, who would take their hate and anger and emotions and diffuse them. Not that I always did that. I often still failed to see the needs behind the emotions and actions. But I got better. I became better.

Eventually, dread didn’t fill my heart as I got in the car in the morning to make the drive to work. At some point, they started writing more, reading more, and thinking more. We started discussing, and pushing and truly exploring ideas and issues. They started talking to me about their lives and their feelings, and they started seeking my approval. When I asked them to step out and have a conversation with me, they did. They started walking out less, pushing back less, and chiding each other more for off-task behaviors. I caught them reading when they shouldn’t have been, they took more risks with their writing, and they admitted to actually enjoying some of the learning we were doing.

They read independently, we read together. They talked to each other about what they were reading, they recommended books to each other, and they even took recommendations from me. They let me help them find the right books. If we didn’t find the right book the first time, they kept trying to find the right fit, and eventually we did. Waiting for students to stop talking actually became a management strategy I could use. In the past, wait time would have ended with them spending the rest of class talking. The days weren’t necessarily easy still, but they certainly were not as hard. The cloud wasn’t hanging overhead the way it had. Sometimes we even laughed and joked together. I learned to bachata at the prom. They watched Harry Potter movies when they came on TV.

The last Friday of school, I watched my students perform their own, reworked versions of Shakespeare plays. I watched as one group performed a prequel to Hamlet, which they entitled Claudius. It delved into the motivations of Claudius, and why he did what he did. I watched another group show how the characters in Hamlet all betrayed each other, leading to their own betrayal. They highlighted how Horatio betrayed no one, and was not betrayed. Another group did a bilingual version of The Taming of the Shrew, while others did a contemporary version of it. Students who used to refuse to read, or talk about books, or work in groups, and so many other things, had worked together to write and perform their own Shakespeare plays. They performed in front of the entire school, which was also the first dramatic performance in the walls of that school. They had made their own props, had pieced costumes together, and typed up scripts. One group even had some kazoos to announce the arrival of royalty in their play.

I used to say that seeing Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre was life-changing. Any performance at the Globe that I saw in the past was completely eclipsed by seeing Shakespeare performed at Phoenix Academy Lawrence. That was actually life-changing. I understood in that moment why parents hang ridiculous assignments on the fridge at home, and why my dad used to tell me I had a beautiful singing voice, even when I would sometimes hit the most atrocious notes in my practicing.
They had done it all on their own. I had given them templates and outlining tools and space to brainstorm and work in class. I listened and gave feedback, and encouraged where I could. But I left it up to them. They did all of the thinking and writing and creating on their own. They kept on top of each other, and they made it all happen. I could hear them talking and laughing animatedly during rehearsals, and bouncing ideas off each other. They revised and reworked and readjusted casting decisions. They spoke loudly during their performance and owned the stage. And I sat and watched. Awe and joy and hope and love colored their performance, at least in my eyes, and I realized that my life had changed. I had changed. They had changed. We had changed together.
The last day of school, I sat in my empty classroom, looked at the walls that had become bare. The student work hung no more, the annotation guides, charts, posters, and all the teacher things had been taken down. Within just a few short hours from the final bell, it had become a sad and empty classroom. I cried in that empty classroom. Remembering the heartache, the grief, the hopes that had died, the hopes that had been reborn, the person that I used to be.  I cried more, however, with gratitude for the person that I had become.

The mission statement of the Phoenix Academy says, “Phoenix Academy Lawrence challenges resilient disconnected youth with rigorous academics and relentless support, so they take ownership of their futures and recast themselves as self-sufficient adults in order to succeed in high school, college, and beyond.” The students all know that a Phoenix rises from the ashes of their burned existence, and gets a new start. The Phoenix is the ultimate symbol of redemption, change, and becoming.

When I first started working at the Phoenix, it felt hard to picture the end. It always is. It is very rare that we get to glimpse the future and see the hints of what could be.  I don’t think I knew then what the story could be like, and I certainly didn’t know what it would be like. It was hard to picture change and redemption, and I had no idea what, or who my students and I would become.  What I know now, though, is that together, we became a storybook ending. A tearful, tumultuous, at times tragic, but overtly triumphant ending.

This is not a book, or really even a fully-fleshed out story. It is a tale of the Phoenix, and we are Phoenix.

I drove home from school that day with the windows down. My emotions were too grand and big to be contained, and I could finally breathe the fresh air.


  1. Absolutely breathtaking. Thank you for sharing this most precious part of your journey.

    1. So sweet of you to read it and go on the journey with me- thank you for your support!

  2. I am amazed by you. This is beautiful and heart-wrenching and a hard won success, but you stuck it out. Now you know what kind of work really goes on behind the scenes in those Hollywood-ized success stories. It doesn't happen in a happy 1 1/2 hours, with a 30 minute difficult setup that immediately starts it's resolution. It happened every single day, a little at a time, and you showed up and let the process unfold. You are brave and strong, and you earned your triumph! I'm so proud of your students, too. I hope they are lucky enough to have more people like you show up and keep trying until they believe in themselves.

    1. Jurassic World will forever be my teaching movie hahaha! Thank you, Jen. I was the lucky one to have such a supportive, loving person in my life to help me along the way. Thank you!

  3. Thank for sharing this, Tara. It's inspiring, and something news teachers should read.

    1. Thank you, Professor Crowe! I appreciate you taking the time to read and for your support and care and advice throughout the journey. Thank you!

  4. Thanks you, Tara! I'm proud of you!

  5. Replies
    1. Thank you- and thank you for taking the time to read!

  6. I came here to say - you rock. Enjoyed your thoughts and reflections. I hope the kids you taught eventually realize how fortunate they were to be in your classroom. Great work!