Friday, January 23, 2015

And Maybe We Danced a Little...

All my life, I watched my parents work. I can remember asking my dad what kind of job I should have, and he told me that he hoped that one day, I'd have a career, not just a job.

I loved that.

A career meant passion and love and excitement. I pictured myself as Mary Tyler Moore, dancing my way down the street, flinging open the door to my office, greeting my colleagues with a big smile and, perhaps, a laugh track for the day.

A job just meant work. And work doesn't sound very fun. Nobody dances at work. They shuffle. Nobody flings open the door at work unless they're stomping out, middle fingers raised high. Work is gray and dull and accented by the punching of a time clock.

I thought to myself, "Why the heck isn't everyone out there getting themselves a career?" (Snobbish italics, totally intended.)


I'm a teacher. It's what I do. I don't really know how to do anything else. I'm not sure if I'd want to do anything else. Sure, there are moments -- daydreams in the middle of chaos where I imagine life in a quiet cubicle, entering data, going to the bathroom anytime I dang well please.

But I'm a teacher. It's what I do. It is my career, and, yes, it is my WORK. It is my life's WORK. (Emphatic bolding and capitalization, totally intended.)


The first day in my school district, fifteen years ago, I introduced myself to a teacher from another school. Another school. She was gracious and kind and so very welcoming as I told her this was my very first teaching job. Until I mentioned what school had hired me.

"Oh. Well, you don't have to stay there forever," she advised. Her kind and sympathetic tone did little to cover her face which twisted up as if I had just plopped down a bucket of elephant dung on the table. At every training and meeting we attended until she retired, I made sure to greet her warmly with my very own best elephant dung face.

I never forgot that woman though, even after she retired, because, in a way, she never left. I saw her in every news story, in every public and private rebuke from our former superintendent(s), in every training where I felt my green shirt unwelcome. I saw her in the giant slideshow proclaiming us as UNACCEPTABLE as well as in the slight of the absent giant slide pointing out our recognition the very next year. I saw her in every gym my basketball and volleyball team entered, in every parent's face that registered only the color of my kids' skin and the decibel of their voices, in every bus driver or administrator that was "surprised" by my kids' manners and sportsmanship. I saw her face when kids and parents refused to be a part of us because of what they heard instead of what they knew.

And I saw her in every mistake we brought upon ourselves. Every gang fight. Every failing score. Every angry outburst. Every kid who gave up. Every teacher who gave up. Every decision we didn't follow through on. Believe me, I know and admit that, too often, we put our own panties on the front porch.

We were the underdog, and in the beginning, I did not mind. I have always loved the underdog because, in the movies, everyone cheers for and falls in love with the underdog. 

This is not so in real life. And, after a while, I did mind.

Making my mark 

Last Friday, we loaded up all of our students and staff -- every last one of them -- and took our crazy out in public to be a kickoff school for the Souper Bowl of Caring. The night before, I traded dozens of texts with my best life friends about this opportunity and how afraid I was of it going all wrong. Of all the possibilities of shame or bad behavior that could happen. Bad things can happen when you upset the balance of a single teenager. We had 800 teenagers. Away from school. With television cameras. 

I told them that I felt like 15 years of work was at stake.

But here's what else I was afraid of: it could all go right. It could all go right and nothing might change. My green shirt might still get a disapproving look from the cashier at the CVS near our school. Other teachers still might not want to listen because "what could they possibly know?" Kids and teachers and parents might still give up on us and on each other.

All night and all morning, my stomach flip-flopped from anxiety to excitement to nausea and back again. And as we rode over in that yellow school bus caravan, I wondered what Cranky Old Ms. Elephant Dung Face would say about that school getting picked to represent our district, our community, our region. I wondered what face she would make then.

As I watched our alternate curriculum kids wheel and walk out from the same tunnel that the varsity football players run from, that woman's face began to fade. 

As our platinum level scholars ran out behind them, her face began to fade.

As our sweet and generous cafeteria ladies and head custodian got their standing ovation, she faded.

As an NFL legend applauded our $1,500 check to a local shelter and food bank, and as kids received their awards, and as school board members and superintendent high-fived them, her face slipped away completely.

Drew Pearson, y'all.

And as my fellow teachers -- my Mustang family -- cheered and applauded and laughed, I realized that there is no career without a job, and there is no job without work. A lot of work. A big ol' pile of elephant dung kind of work some days. And in 15 years, I have shoveled my share.

Are we where we want to be? No.

Are we where we could be? No.

But are we where we were? No.

And, for the first time in a long time, the only faces that mattered were the faces right in front of me.

Our kids

So last Friday, walking into that gym, my teammates and I flung open that door and greeted everyone with a great big smile. And maybe -- just maybe -- we even danced a little.

My team teachers

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Hunt

I sat once, at an Easter Egg hunt, and watched. It's one of my favorite things to do, to sit and study others when they feel beyond notice. On that day, I watched a little girl, maybe 4 or 5 years old, walking through the grass, picking up plastic eggs.

Afterward, her mother took her basket and opened all of the eggs and dumped the candies hidden inside into a bag, presumably to save for later. To parcel out in moments of goodness and pleasant nature or necessitated bribery, perhaps. While her mother talked with a friend, the girl began to go through her basket of plastic shells, tiny fingers prying open each one only to find it hollow.

I watched her for a long while, waiting for the meltdown, the rage at finding nothing where something so delicious had been promised. She continued about her candy-less efforts, prying and fumbling, smiling and hoping. Each time, I braced for reality, for sadness, for this sweet-cheeked baby to realize her search was as empty as those eggs. But she didn't stop. Reality never appeared. She just kept on, seeking and not finding, completely undeterred.


A few weeks ago, I opened an email with only one line:

"Where have you been?"

It was from someone that I only vaguely know, and I wasn't sure of the intent behind it; we had no plans to meet or talk, no appointments to keep. My response was that I was here, that I was working, that I was busy, that I was fine. And I was. I was all of that. The next day was another email:

"I don't believe you. Show yourself."

Out of context, these messages seem strange, possibly even a little overbearing at best and threatening at worst. But I knew the context. The context was here.

I haven't been here in a long while. Not since August. I couldn't tell you why. I don't really know why. It's not as though I ran out of things to say. Maybe I ran out of energy most days. Maybe I ran out of patience with the blank screen. Perhaps I had more to do. I don't know.

So I did some sorting within my own jumbled brain, searching for the reason behind my vanishing act. Why did I stop doing something that brings me such challenge, such release, such joy? I thought for days on end without coming to a logical conclusion, and then in a dream, there I was, at an Easter egg hunt, watching a little girl crack open egg after empty egg, waiting, hoping that in at least one, she would find something sweet as a reward for her search.

And as she dug deep into her basket, her eyes big, her smile wide and pure as she whispered, "A yellow! I like the yellow best!" And she hugged it tightly to her chest. And she went about her business of fumbling and prying and hoping.

I woke up with that dream-memory on my heart, pushing it around in my jumbled brain until it clicked into place.

How do we find joy?

As the prize inside the egg?

The act of the hunt?

Do we throw away each egg we find, certain it's already rotted or empty?

Or do we relish the moment we stumble upon it, hidden and waiting for our notice?

Or in the excitement of the split second as we feel the seam give way?