Monday, August 25, 2008

The First Day

Today is the first day of school. Miraculously I slept through the night last night and very well. I remember in the past I could never sleep the night before the first day of school. I would get overwhelmed with the excitement of finding new classrooms, seeing everyone again and worrying if I would be able to get to the bus on time at the end of the day. Once a teacher had to drive me home and I became terrified that that would happen again and I'd have to sit in a teacher's dirty Suburu with sticky, unwashed travel mugs scattered with last year's papers across the back seat. That experience made me think that all teachers have messy cars.

I have a messy car. I've tried to keep it clean. I keep everything else clean so I don't know why I just give up when it comes to the car and start throwing things everywhere. My car got broken into again two weeks ago and since there was nothing in it because they stole everything of value last time, the thieves threw papers all over the place. This aggravated me so badly that I just didn't clean it up. I also always leave things in the car that shouldn't be there. Once I found a completely dried apple under my driver's seat. It never even smelled. But this year I have resolved to keep the car clean. I don't want to be one of those messy car teachers.

I have this pattern that I developed around second grade that every new school year I make a bunch of resolutions. As a child I was a terrible student and I knew it and felt like a bad person. I was lucky to get Cs and I was constantly in trouble at home over my lack of good grades. I got lectures from every authority figure in my life about laziness, applying myself and staying organized. I was a disaster. I was that kid who had so much crap jammed into her desk that papers and books were constantly falling out. I could never find anything. In high school it was my locker and my book bag which carried old food, empty juice boxes, torn books, unstapled handouts and crumpled notes from classmates. I just could not figure out how to organize things and as a result I couldn't keep track of my assignment and never did my homework. I barely managed to pass because I always got decent grades on tests, which I took purely from memory. My teachers would make a big display of forcing me to clean out my desk or locker or bag and then I would swear to keep it clean from then on out but a few weeks later I'd be back to where I started.

Every September though, I would start with a clean desk just like everyone else. On the first day of school I would tell myself that I was equal to the A students with their subdivided Trapper Keepers. I could do it too. There was so much possibility that day, before things began to pile up and I began to give up. Every year I resolved that I would never do that again. This year would be different and I would be that A student once and for all. Then I would go back to my old habits and feel like I was a terrible person. Then the Cs and Ds would start coming in and I would get punished and pretty soon I'd just say "fuck it" and pretend like I didn't care anyway. In high school I mostly just didn't even go at all after the first couple of weeks trying to keep up and failing to do so. It didn't help that several times I was uprooted in the middle of the year at once school and transferred to another one. I would start the pattern of "it's going to be different" all over again, but at new schools it was even harder because I could never seem to get caught up and this made me feel even worse. A lot of this is why I grew up thinking I was stupid and could never do well in school. I figured some people were meant for school and I wasn't one of them.

I started to change my pattern when I went back to school, after many, many years. I did so reluctantly of course and I started once again with my whole routine of "it's going to be different" and this time it really was. A lot of the change had to do with the fact that I was an adult. I had lived on my own and had figured out how to keep a house, how to take care of a car and pets and pretty much everything on my own. I also knew I had to pay for classes and when you're paying for something with your own money it suddenly has a lot more value. I wasn't about to waste money failing a class because I couldn't keep some papers and folders together. Plus, I just couldn't bear to feel like a bad person anymore. I didn't want to be an uneducated, low class, disorganized disaster of a person who had to work two low paying, shitty, miserable jobs to barely get by just because she couldn't manage to remember when her term paper was due. That life just wasn't an option for me anymore.

So here I am now as the teacher in what to me feels like the greatest irony of all. If some of my old teachers knew this was how I ended up they'd never, ever believe it.

"That juvenile delinquent?" they'd ask, "No way. She wasn't even very smart."

Another resolution that I had (and kept) was that I would never be one of those kinds of teachers. I have had students who are a wreck, who have papers all over the place, who can't seem to remember anything and I can't help but to love them. I love all of my students a lot, but the grade grubbers don't touch me as much. I identify with the disasters - the students who struggle. I am moved by the kid who is always late to class and can't seem to get his act together at all. I am challenged by the students who can barely speak English and who tell me that they are living with fifteen other people in a two bedroom apartment in a bad area of town. The single mom, with the waittressing job at night, who comes to class in her uniform, makes me want to be a better person and a better teacher because I know I have a responsibility to be an outstanding teacher so that she will genuinely learn the skills that will enable her to stay in school and to make a better life and correct her past mistakes for her kids.

I know that some of my students who have such a hard time have grown up in homes filled with chaos and anxiety where they didn't have anyone to read to them, to show them how to organize their papers or their time and they didn't have a parent to help with homework. They had teachers who passed them out of high school in order to get rid of them. For these students I realize that I have to take some extra time and literally teach them, as no one ever taught me, how to organize, how to study, how to keep track of things and how to best manage time. I eventually get to teaching them how to write a thesis statement, what a comma splice is and how to most effectively use transitions, but none of that is going to matter if they can't find time to write their papers or if they can't find the papers once they do get around to writing them. And all of them have thanked me me for finally showing them in concrete terms, what to do.

I have a tremendous success rate with my students. I have a reputation for being a hard-ass grader, yet I rarely have to fail anyone. I've been accused of making my classes too hard by other teachers, but not a single student has ever complained. When I raise my standards I tell my students I am doing so because I know they can do it and then they raise their standards for themselves. Dumbing things down makes people feel badly about themselves. Hard work gives people, in all fields not just students, confidence and a sense of real accomplishment.

I'm so excited to get back into the classroom. I can hardly stand the excitement and the energy I feel. I love being back at school. I love that I have the potential to effect so many people's lives and I know this can all sound very cheezy of me, but seriously, I was born to do this and it's about so much more than having summers off. And this year, maybe once and for all, I'll be able to keep the car clean and maybe I'll even try giving up coffee again.


Anonymous said...

Have a good year!

Anonymous said...

You sound like a great teacher. I hope you have a wonderful year! :)

Anonymous said...

"I know that some of my students who have such a hard time have grown up in homes filled with chaos and anxiety where they didn't have anyone to read to them, to show them how to organize their papers or their time and they didn't have a parent to help with homework. They had teachers who passed them out of high school in order to get rid of them. For these students I realize that I have to take some extra time and literally teach them, as no one ever taught me, how to organize, how to study, how to keep track of things and how to best manage time."

Because of this I'm sure you are a fabulous teacher! I'm excited to start the new year too - have a blast; I'll look forward to reading about it.

Emily said...

I think the best teachers are the ones that did have to struggle a little bit, so it sounds like you would be a great one!

Anonymous said...

First of all, a car is like a purse with wheels. I fully believe you have to have a mess in your life somewhere, and the car is better than the office or the desk.

I've also been accused of demanding too much of my students. My reading lists are a standing joke (I maintain, if you can carry it in one hand, it's not too much reading for one semester). But you know what? My students come out of my classes knowing they're capable of so much more than they ever dreamed. I expect a lot, but I make it clear that I'm convinced they can do this, and they DO.

I've heard people scornfully refer to the "mythical professor" who makes their students work really hard and gets loved for it, but in my experience, it's not only possible, it's the best way to teach. Good for you for being the kind of teacher who helps them see their potential. In the end, isn't that our real job?

Unknown said...

All this time I've been reading your blog and I never knew you were a teacher! For some reason I thought you did something with food and that you went to school! LOL

Thank you for that story. But don't forget about the A students too! I was one of them, and I think a lot of it had to do with the awesome teachers I had. :) Any time I had lower grades it was because the teacher didn't give his/her students any personal attention or was very boring and probably hated his/her job and just showed up to write stuff on the board and assign homework.

You sound like a great teacher, though. Some of my best teachers that I remember the most were the toughest ones. Especially English/Lit teachers. Oi.

Have a great year!

Anonymous said...

You go girl!! Those kids are very very lucky.

PS My kids started school on August 4th!

Anonymous said...

I can relate to this post because I was also the girl with the messy desk.

I used to iron my homework when it got crumpled in my messy backpack. Just put a towel over the paper and iron away!

Green said...

I read once that people with learning disabilities do better with organized spaces. Ever since then I try very hard to keep my room clean, and I do notice a difference when I don't. I have a very hard time in SF staying organized, because I don't have a desk or filing cabinet.

In FL, I used to regligiously clean out my car at the end of every week, which mostly involved taking out a pair of shoes, a sweater or two, and an umbrella.

Anonymous said...

I was one of those kids who grew up in a chaotic home, with no one I could trust or turn to for help. I always thought college was out of reach. I am now 46 and getting my bachelor's degree in English, a subject I love, and am doing this while working full time. Being an adult makes a huge difference, but having had someone like you in my life would have made a bigger difference. I admire what you are doing - primarily because you understand how important it is.


Anonymous said...

I had some wonderful teachers as well as some who were downright cruel.
Our family was similar in many ways to your "Millpond" group- it was tough being a kid in that family for many years. I had teachers who ridiculed me and I will never forget it or forgive them. Luckily, we all pull through, somehow. You sound like the kind of teacher that I would've liked to have had.
Good luck this school year!!

Anonymous said...

My youngest daughter just started school today, too. She's entering her sophomore year of high school and she too always says, "this year will be different", although it never is. A few weeks into the school year, maybe a month, she gets disorganized, forgets an assignment, doesn't turn things in, and before you know it, she's lost - locker, backpack, purse, etc., all a mess. Then she starts feeling like the dumbest person in school, the kid that all her teachers hate. She'll be embarassed and lose all self-confidence and becomes a stressed-out mess. Through the years, I've honestly grown to hate school more than her.

I'm going to have her read your post today. I think she'll relate and I think she'll find it comforting to know there's a thoughtful, intelligent teacher out there who was once just like her.

Thanks for the post.

Jeannie said...

You sound like an amazing teacher! Just a thought - don't ignore the smart kids (not that you do) give them an encouraging word too. So they know that doing well, even if it comes easy, matters too.

Hilary said...

You're the kind of teacher that I wish my kids always had. Sometimes they did.. just not often enough. I'm glad you're out there shaping minds and psyches.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you're so enthusiastic about school starting! Your students are lucky you care so much. I still remember my high school English teacher - she worked us, but dangit, I remember my English and I know how to write!

Personally I can't get excited about this school term (I'm a returning college student) and I need to. My first class is tomorrow.

Wide Lawns said...

Don't worry you guys. I adore ADORE my A students and perfectionists too. I give them plenty of encouragement and praise and challenges as well. My point was just that many teachers only like the A students and get angry and frustrated with the lower achieving students. I love them all. After all, I myself am now one of those over achieving A student types, so I know that behind that is a desperate desire for success and admiration and that those students are that way because they need that validation to feel good about themselves too. So I give it to them. Don't worry.

JDogg said...

Have a great year - as you are starting work, I'm finding that I have some unexpected time off.

Anonymous said...

I left school at 15 with the California Proficiency test (like the GED only for younger students). I went to 18 schools in those 15 years and my family wasn't in the military, just crazy. Ninth and tenth grade were a nightmare for me in so many ways and when I did take the test, I had been "asked to leave" two high schools and was failing everything but drama and English (the two classes I attended regularly). NO ONE thought I would make anything of myself.

At 21 I went to Jr College and later to a four-year. I graduated with a 3.7 GPA. I own my own company. I'm about to be published. I live in a tropical paradise. The best teachers that I ever had were the ones that not only saw my potential but offered me a haven from my awful life, through belief and friendship. I will never forget those teachers.

Thanks for caring for those that other people have forgotten.

Fancy Schmancy said...

I'm 37 years old and I still remember the first and last name of the teacher in high school who went out of her way to care for me. People like you and her really do make difference in people's lives. Thank you!

jennifer said...

my favorite teacher also taught the hardest class i ever took. childhood and adolescent psychology - super hard tests but she was just awesome and I remember so much of that class 15 years later.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading through your blog and have been ignoring all the inconsistencies but really, it's getting to be a bit too much. I'm not sure if you're just a bit too addicted to BS/embellishing or if you're so scattered and disorganized that you can't keep track of your own memories but, as an example, in a previous post you went on and on about how you did nothing remotely rebellious as a child and never got a worse grade than a B in a math class; in this post, you say you were lucky to get C's and skipped class in high school. These aren't really compatible. Just wanted to alert you to one of the more frustrating issues with your writing.

About Me

Blog Archive