Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Panic of Perfection

As the first day of school draws near, I am sensing a definite theme with my teacher friends as I scroll through social media: Panic.

Not about curriculum. Not about students. Not about school policies. Full-blown Panic about the state of not-nearly-readiness of our classrooms. I sense their panic because I know this Panic. We are, in fact, old, old friends, he and I. Today was our 17th anniversary.

Hello, lover.

At my school, almost everyone is in a new place, and all week, I've seen people walking in and out of each others' rooms, calculating time lost in meetings, eyeing decor, silently taking measurements, calling dibs on unwanted furniture. Today was NJH Craigslist day: if you want something post about it or if you're looking, post about it. Teachers cruise hallways like seasoned garage-salers. Word about hard-to-find objects like bookshelves or free Expo markers spreads like we're Bodie and the Corner Boys.

Teacher 1: "Yo. You didn't hear this from me, but I saw a sweet, sweet rolling chair just sittin' outside room 208. You want me to go pick it up for you?"

Teacher 2: (twitches and whispers) "I don't know, man. Doesn't that belong to Drury? Why's he puttin' it out there like that? You sure it's safe? I don't want any trouble."

Teacher 1: "Don't worry about Drury. If it's in the hallway, it's fair game. Thems the rules, you know? All I need is a 24 count box of mechanical pencils, and we're square."

And that's just the physical layout of the room. We haven't even started out-Pinteresting each other yet. Elementary school teachers start planning their class themes for the upcoming school year even before the previous year is done. I'm convinced they go on retreats to the desert, do a bunch of peyote, and then their spirit animal drops their bulletin board plan into the sand. It is absolutely the only explanation.

Junior high teachers don't usually dig quite as deep, but don't be fooled. We care. We worry about having the coolest decorations and the hottest memes to use as our classroom procedures. We're all about the best lighting and the comfiest chairs. We want to be seen but we don't want to seem too eager about it because we just want you to like us.

As I've said many times before: it takes junior high to teach junior high.

I've been especially stressed this year because in the grand game of musical classrooms, I've been lucky the past 3 years and avoided a move. But this year, I've taken the sidewalk less-traveled and moved to the portable buildings outside. And not just those outside but across the street. On the football field.

These buildings appeared through some form of wizardry one day last year, only two years after they were ordered. They sat empty until June when my PLC and I began shoving our hastily packed boxes into them.

"BLANK CANVASES!" the optimists shouted.

"NO HALLWAY DRAMA!" the hermits cheered.

"YOUR OWN THERMOSTAT!" everyone exclaimed.


Me, today, after 3 Diet Cokes and forgetting my key card into the building.

It has not been a pretty move. Not only did my lovely students schlep all of my 17 years worth of teaching materials, boxes of mementos, and 743 novels, but they did so in the rain. For the cost of Chik Fil-A. And it all sat, unopened and unthought of until last Friday when I could no longer ignore my ever-growing anxiety. That's when I walked into my BLANK CANVAS that was AWAY FROM HALLWAY DRAMA with my very OWN (unreliable) THERMOSTAT. And I saw that absolutely nothing had changed in two months. My own ragged boxes still there, taunting me but there was nothing else. No teacher desk, no furniture, no technology, no internet -- in any of my PLC's rooms. And all my worst trust issues burst out of me in such a way that I may never make it into Heaven.

I will admit it. S**t got real, and it got real fast. I fumed. I cried. I cussed. I guilted. I played every last card I knew how to play. I had gotten my feelings hurt, and then I got mad. I ranted and raved and reminded until, little by little, things began to appear. I was actually kind of proud of myself for fighting the fight and fighting it so well.

Then last night, at our Preseason Picnic, 40 students and their parents and siblings walked those 527 steps to my unkempt, uncovered, shameful door. Not a single one asked why my bulletin boards were unfinished. Not a single one noticed I had no computer on my desk. Not a single one cast the side eye at my tables covered by piles of construction paper and Jenga towers of novels. Or the missing ceiling tile that I predict will be the gateway to a raccoon home invasion someday soon.

For teachers, their classroom is a second home. We spend 50+ hours per week there. We sometimes eat breakfast, lunch, AND dinner there. I had a friend once who took longer to pick out her office chair than I took to pick out my last mattress. It is the place we learn and cry and celebrate and, sometimes, nap. So when we open them up to others -- especially to those first time guests -- we want them to be clean and comfortable and inviting.

So how did no one mention what they saw? Did they politely ignore? Did they silently judge and then talk about me on some "disappointing classrooms of 2016" message board? Or did it really not matter? These are the questions I thought about and woke myself up with at 4:00 AM when I finally realized something and made some peace within my mind. Peace that I knew in my heart but I could not quite hammer into my head.

1. There are entire school buildings in my district that remain in process of construction/renovation. Those teachers have not even been allowed in their own homes yet.

2. There are entire communities underwater in my neighboring state where children dream about going back to school as they sleep curled up on the roofs of their actual, submerged homes.

3. There are teachers in my district (but finally, FINALLY not in my school) who do not have their own rooms, and they must depend on the kindness and care of fellow teachers to let them in.

4. When I started at my school 17 years ago, we didn't have our own computers or telephones or wifi signals. We calculated grades on calculators and hand-wrote our grade sheets on triplicate forms and actually walked to someone else's classroom to ask a question. And I survived! And I was loved! And my children learned!

5. There are still schools in our very own God-Bless-the-USA nation that cannot afford copy paper of textbooks or faculty pay checks. Schools with mold and broken windows and fear, and yet children learn.

6. And that there are people in this world willing to sit under a bridge, in the dirt, to learn from a man with only a battered chalkboard and the desire to teach.

7. That never -- not once -- have I ever been denied what I need at my school. Things have arrived late. They may have arrived inconveniently. But they arrived, and I am blessed by their arrival. Even the NJH Craigslist furniture ads typically get fulfilled within 24 hours by someone.

So, I know I'm preaching what I must practice myself these next 3 days, but this is what finally gave me peace this morning, and in moments of panic, I want you to say it with me:

It doesn't matter.

It will all be okay.

My home doesn't have to be Pinterest perfect to be clean, welcoming, and inviting. It just needs me.

I am enough.

My students don't need things; they need me.

All a classroom needs is students, chairs, and someone who cares.

And to be honest, when necessary, even the chairs are negotiable.

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