Something… interesting? odd? freaking weird?… happened today.
Let me tell you about it.
I’ve been rolling through this school year with some heavy thoughts, the most shareable being “Am I really meant to teach ‘forever?’ Can I make it through the rest of my career doing this? Will I even be worth having around in another 5 years when my philosophy and/or teaching style and/or everything else I ever believed go out of style?” Today certainly didn’t answer any of these questions, but it surely woke me up and if nothing else, got me thinking about what I’m doing and where exactly I’m headed. In general.
I got to school today hoping for a few things: to get through the two exams I had to give without having to go to the bathroom too bad (those exam periods can seem verrry long when you have to pee), and to get as many papers graded as I could. It probably wasn’t a great idea to assign two essays, a creative writing portfolio, and a newspaper portfolio to be due at the end of the quarter. I’m in English Teacher Hell, and it’s my own fault.
Anyway, NOT only my list of things of hopeful things today: a caring and sharing kumbaya hour and a half with one of my classes, during which there was singing, talk of past suicide attempts, an open letter addressing each individual’s strengths, and various other medical histories that must violate at least one part of HIPPA.
Because here is what USUALLY happens in a high school class where students have to complete a portfolio and then present it to their class as a final exam (I did this over and over with Expository Writing back in the olden days, and it never approached today’s… uniqueness): said students sit in their chairs in their ugliest sweatpants, sans makeup and/or any kind of hygienic care of themselves (since they’ve been up all hours of the night finishing that portfolio that we were supposed to have spent weeks in class working on), and avoid eye contact with me. Apparently, if a kid looks me in the eye, it means he or she is admitting to some secret desire to present first and with some semblance of what one might interpret as enthusiasm for learning. And Christ knows THAT ain’t “cool” or “swag” or whatever the hell today’s word is. So what I end up doing, as no one will look at me and students stare straight ahead with bitchiest/meanest grumpy faces on, is going through my roster randomly or alphabetically, and we all suffer through the short but completed unprepared presentations until it’s over. Then students become their normal half-way decent selves again, and life goes back to normal.
BUT NOT TODAY! And I say this with some bitterness, yes, because today’s elective writing class final is the stuff of a teacher’s dream. I wasn’t ready for it, and I wasn’t looking for it, and I felt like a jerk when I realized I had underestimated this amazing group of people, who I thought would show up and provide another boring set of speeches, just going through the motions. Was it wrong for me to just want to grade my papers? I guess not. But I wasn’t exactly prepared to deal with the emotion I witnessed being so openly offered. It happened on it’s own, as I sat in a corner and said very little. A teacher’s dream.
And I can’t pretend that what happened at Sandy Hook isn’t part of a tiny bit of my reaction to this. That’s probably beside the point though. Back to my story.
So in a teacher’s dream, like I said, the students are there in my class because they want to be (check – this was a creative writing elective, after all.; what kind of a crazy person…?), they participate because they see the value in what it is we might be working on (check), and they’re self-directed enough to extend their minds past the obvious lessons and apply what they learned (check). Kind of like a perfect storm event, but in a non-destructive kind of way. And the best part of this is that I felt as the semester went on that I wasn’t really teaching them that much. I was following a colleague’s plan (if you remember the Class Fairy from Darby, this was a similar kind of situation – in August my bulletin board was done for Speech class) and not following it all that well, so I fully give credit to these students for taking on their own learning. Again, a perfect scenario.
So the exam period begins, and a few students volunteer to present. OK, going well so far. A few lighthearted jokes, a cool film clip to go along with a screenplay script… all right. Nothing too out of the ordinary. And then the real stuff begins.
A senior girl (one of those kids who I’m pretty sure is smarter than me and will be a hugely famous singer/songwriter) talks about how the most important thing she learned from the class was that writing something is better than writing nothing; even if it’s crap, you can’t revise what doesn’t exist. Seems too obvious? Not to a high schooler, and not to me. I have been trying to cram this down kids throats since I started… the writing PROCESS. So that’s good to hear. Another senior girl mentions that she realized she was actually funny once she started writing. Doesn’t that seem like an amazing detail to learn about yourself – that you can make people laugh?! I take that pretty seriously.
Here comes the turning point. Long story short: I have a student with a brutal home life in that class. Really brutal. Yet she comes to school every day, is pleasant, does her work, and enjoys it. But she is young, growing into her maturity, and desperate for attention, so some of the other students had not opened up to her or included her in any meaningful way on their own. Sure, the other kids were nice enough to work with her when I told them to, and a couple of kids would pair up with her, but she remained an outsider. A few weeks ago she mentioned to me that she overhead some of the other students call her TAG: That Annoying Girl. I dealt with that as best I could, but sadly she seemed resigned to be “that kid.” Not OK with it, but accepting.
Today, this kid, who knew her peers didn’t understand her or relate to her life, stood in front of my class and sang a song she wrote as part of her presentation. At first I could sense that there was a bit of amazement in the class, something to the effect of “what the hell? is this really happening?” Oh, it was. The song was about her self-mutilation and how she wished it wasn’t something she had started, but that helps her cope with her life (not an ideal message, by the way).
Within a few seconds I was about to puke, terrified that someone would laugh or make fun of her or say something to cause an altercation and then all hell would break loose among the Dean’s List kids. To my complete surprise, I peeked around the room through my hair (very covert, I’m sure) and saw nothing of the sort. When she finished, the kids clapped louder for her than anyone else. Not only that, but she decided to address her classmates in a sort of open letter: she said, “you may not remember me after this class, but I will remember you.” The ultimate reminder, for teacher or student: they will remember. Do what you do thoughtfully and gently. Because they will remember. My student proceeded to then say something nice about every kid in class (all 14); a class that she at one point told me she thought hated her. She’s a better person than I.
So apparently this started a trend. The sharing began to strength and grow; some other thoughts from students (that I am quoting as best I can from memory):
- “I used to hate poems, but now I kind of appreciate them. I am writing nonfiction for fun.”
- “Writing is really scary. I’m scared to share it with you because nonfiction, this is all me. You could change your opinion of me just by what I write. That’s scary. You could be wrong about me.”
- “I thought I was an ‘avid writer,’ but I never wrote anything until this class forced me to. How could it be that I saw myself as an avid writer but had nothing to show for it? I’ve never been this happy in high school because I have started to write.” (I SHIT YOU NOT! This all actually happened today.)
- “I thought this class would be an easy A. Nope.”
And some poetry about suicide attempts, medical conditions, depression, teen angst, etc. Pretty amazing, right? Yeah. So 40 or so minutes pass, and I’m so proud and happy, and I thank my students and tell them how proud and happy I am, and then retreat to my desk. Because that’s what I always do when I don’t know what to do next. I explain that I’ll have their presentation grades in a few minutes (DUH, all A+’s, this is a CREATIVE WRITING ELECTIVE), and that’s that.
Except that they’re not done.
A few kids have brought snacks, which they break out and share.
One of the seniors suggests they sit in a circle and share writings from their portfolios. Which they do. For the remaining 40 minutes, the kids sit around and share their creative writing portfolio pieces. I quietly sit at my desk, entering grades, wondering what the hell is happening and why I am so lucky to witness this. I occasionally interject something, a smile, some clapping or a laugh, but I feel that I’m the real outsider here today. And that is better than all right with me.