34 years ago, I was leading a class of 6th graders on a nature hike when we came to a creek moving swiftly due to a storm the previous night.
“Do you think it’s safe, Flying Goose?” a student asked. My nature name was Flying Goose.
“No problem. We’ll do a caterpillar.”
A caterpillar was where I held the hand of the first kid, who held hands with the next, and so on. I was a naturalist at environmental education camp. The job description was to take city kids and immerse them in nature. What better way than wading across a gnarly looking creek.
“Hold tight!” I commanded and led the way. Halfway across, unbeknownst to me, was a large hole, so when I unwittingly stepped into it, I lost balance and fell. Luckily, kid number one had the sense to let go of his naturalist’s hand, and it was only Flying Goose who flew down the river, swept away by the current.
“I thought we lost you,” the classroom teacher said, as the bedraggled “wilderness guide” hauled himself out fifty yards down the creek. The lesson those 20 impressionable minds learned that day was nature is dangerous. Better to stay inside and play Super Mario.
Following my stint in the great outdoors, I followed the more traditional educational path as a public high school English teacher. Though I haven’t endangered anyone by knocking over a bookshelf filled with a class-set of War and Peace, I am as clueless as that young 23-year-old Goose when it comes to teaching. Perhaps I suffer from false modesty; after all, I am expert in dozens of classic novels and poems. I know when to use semi-colons; many of my students can craft a passable essay, and a minority come to appreciate that Huckleberry Finn, rather than being a racist screed, is one of the great American novels. Yet in the area that really counts, helping teens deal with life’s essential questions, I am clueless. How can I teach students about life when I have little idea about my own. I don’t know how to usher adolescents into adulthood.
Still every weekday, I stand in front of six groups of teenagers, look over a sea of expectant (or indifferent) eyes, wait for a bell, and then commence, “Take out your journals.”
The audacity to teach.
Education is partly about pouring information into our students. William Butler Yeats is said to have called this “filling the pail.” To do well on state-mandated tests or Jeopardy or get into a decent university, a student needs a fairly full pail; for that, my colleagues and I do a poor to moderate job. Following graduation, about a fifth of our graduates enroll in four-year institutes of higher learning, a fifth of them go straight to work in low skill/low pay jobs, and most of the rest try community college or technical school. Some succeed, the majority muddle through or drop out.
It is not only parents, politicians, educational experts, and captains of industry who are frustrated by public high school’s middling record. My colleagues and I work hard. I want my students to succeed. I use research-based education techniques. I stay after school to tutor. I come in on weekends to prepare. I take part in continuous professional development. Yet the majority of my students will not graduate high school competent in basic English. And it isn’t just me. Over 50% of freshmen in state universities take remedial English.
If the bar for my students to clear is English proficiency or an understanding of oneself, then I was, am, and will always be a failure. So what good am I? What use can I be to the majority of students whom I cannot provide the tools or guidance to adulthood? By the time many of the 16-year-olds first walk into my classroom, they are already closed off to knowledge; poverty and dysfunctional families put out their intellectual fires long before high school, and short of a miracle, there isn’t a lot I can do to spark them back up. This doesn’t make me happy; this doesn’t give me a free pass to not try. I try. My colleagues try. But if I don’t want to despair, my definition of what it means to be a teacher must expand.
We read Dick Gregory’s essay “Shame” in which he recounts a childhood incident where he bragged to his third grade classmates about his father until his teacher said, “Richard, we know you don’t have a daddy.” The shame of being called out by a teacher stayed with him for over twenty years.
The students then write about incidents that caused them shame. Though they often write “i” and put in apostrophes every time a word ends in “s,” as I read, I reach for the facial tissues instead of the red pen.
Abby writes about how she was to ashamed to go to school when she was eight because the chemo used to treat her leukemia made her hair fall out. Blake remembers seeing his father grab the back of his mother’s head and slam her against the refrigerator. When she slumped to the floor, Blake thought she was dead, and despite only being four years old, the fact that he couldn’t protect her still “is an open gash filled with salt.” DeSean writes about how he hated gays until he learned that his favorite aunt was a lesbian. She and her partner had a better relationship than his parents. Chloe feels shame about her dead father. He was a gambler, and the family was sometimes homeless. She used to pray that he would die. She even made a voodoo doll. When he was killed by a drunk driver, Chloe felt responsible. And so on through the essays. It’s always like this.
I tear up because so many of their young lives already have two strikes against them. I tear up because I don’t see how I or anyone else can possibly make any difference. School is not going to take these young people, erase their pain, and turn them into critical thinkers who will score well on standardized tests, go on to successful careers, and live the American Dream. If this is the goal of public education, it will forever be an abject failure.
And then I came to an epiphany. Though I will never turn these teenagers into what society desires, I can bear witness to the traumas of their lives. This will not transform them, but having space to share their authentic emotions is something many of our students have never experienced. This is something I can do as a teacher. There is nobility to that.
After the crowd of student hikers stopped gawking at me when I pulled myself out of the creek, they walked over to some benches next to a redwood grove and ate a snack. As I dried off, the boy who had earlier let go of my hand stayed behind.
“You’re not hungry?” I asked, hoping he would take a hint and leave me to regain my composure.
“Last year my dad left and hasn’t come back.” The boy teared up and said no more. I had no idea how to respond or what to say. He needed a therapist, and all he had was me. I took his hand and held it tight, and our eyes met for a brief moment, the time it takes for a struck match to light a wick. His lips formed a tiny grin; we released hands; he wiped a damp eye and took off running to the snack area.
Sometimes my job requires the audacity to teach; more often, it requires the humility to listen.