Occasionally we see freshmen boys who haven’t made it through puberty by the time they reach our building. As if high school isn’t challenging enough, these guys stand feet shorter than their classmates, with kid voices and skinny arms that look painfully inadequate for shouldering the enormous backpacks and stresses we hoist upon them.
Three years ago, I taught a section of freshmen as an overload when a colleague transferred to another school. Because it was my third prep and sixth class that year, those ninth graders and I kept our time together casual. They knew I had taken on more work than I could comfortably handle. I rewarded their understanding with flexible due dates and extra time spent on the film analysis unit.
In that section, I had one of those yet-to-mature boys. He sat up front and compensated for his stature with enthusiasm, as if no one told him he was supposed to abandon his excitement in middle school. I will always remember that section of English 9, and he was one of the big reasons why.
Three years later, he showed up on my English 12 class list, and on the first day of school, I didn’t recognize him. He was all grown up. The enthusiasm remained, but he had tempered it, channeled it into outlets more appropriate to a senior in high school. He was quieter, but he still earned the highest grade in the class.
I don’t know if this student will remember me. I tried to provide a worthwhile experience for him, but he was well into a successful life regardless of his 9th and 12th grade English classes. There are some kids who need the specific curricula they learn in school, but for a lot of them, the best we teachers can do is watch them grow up and keep them occupied while they do.
It’s like planning a party. I can put together some killer decorations, and whip up some incredible appetizers. I can pick the perfect music, and I can flit around and try to make sure everyone’s having a good time. But whether or not the party becomes something memorable, something epic, something important, that’s not really up to me. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t.
With that kid, we had a monumental party, and I just hope I was able to contribute.
The third-to-last thing public schools need is more political discussion to distract students and teachers from their jobs. The second-to-last thing we need is more politicians trying to convince voters that, despite having no experience in an actual school, they know what’s best for schools. And the absolute last thing our particular public school needed during the 2015-16 school year was a visit from Donald Trump.
We didn’t need any of those things, but we got them nonetheless.
This blog is a bad place to argue education politics, so I’ll just acknowledge some facts.
1. The politics of education have made lots of people really upset.
2. Really upset people often have a hard time seeing things from others’ perspectives and compromising to find solutions.
3. Helping really upset people become less upset is probably a critical step to solving their problems.
Donald Trump is not the best guy out there to help people become less upset. But that didn’t matter, because the weekend before Wisconsin’s primary, he needed a place to speak, and our school’s auditorium was open, so we hosted one of the most colorful and divisive figures in modern politics. The days between the announcement and the visit felt like the air before a storm. The teachers did their best to diffuse tense political discussions. The students quickly learned not to say anything too offensive or threatening.
And then I overheard the following conversation.
Student A (after tapping the screen of his cell phone): “No way! I just got tickets to Donald Trump.”
Student B: “Nice!”
A: “Do you want to go?”
B: “Sure. I’m not working.”
A: “What should we wear?”
B: “I was thinking about wearing my sombrero.”
A: “Good idea.”
Let’s be honest. Things can’t be that bad if you’re wearing a sombrero.
For a lot of years, I’ve worried about the politics of education. I’ve lost sleep over it, I’ve shed tears over it, my values and understandings of my fellow citizens have changed, in fundamental and not very positive ways, because of education politics. And all of that stress and worry, work and voting has changed exactly nothing about my job, my paycheck, the professional respect afforded me by my district, or my stature in the community.
Maybe it’s time for me to buy a sombrero.
2015-16 was my eleventh year teaching, the kickoff of my second decade in the classroom. Maybe I’ve done all the good I can do as a teacher, or maybe there’s more left. Maybe my early-millenial generation status means I’ll never be happy doing anything for longer than a decade, or maybe I can find contentment in a 35-year teaching career. Maybe next year will be better than this year. Maybe it won’t.
But I still signed everyone’s yearbook with “Thanks for the great year!” And I meant it.