Make ’em or Break ’em

I never wanted to be a teacher. My mom thought she knew best. I fought the pull of it, the calling of it for years. As I neared 30, I realized it was part of the plan for my life. Once I started, I wondered why I had waited so long.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a job for the weak or weary. Don’t let ten weeks in the summer and two weeks at Christmas fool you into choosing this career. If you do, you’ll feel duped. Here’s what no one tells you: you need those ten weeks to recuperate from the last month of school.

In teacher land there are three time zones:  Back-to-school exhaustion, Christmas season frenzy, and Summeritis. I now know why teacher appreciation is the first week of May – the teachers seriously need a pick-me-up. Testing is almost finished. The sun sets later at night, rises earlier. Kids get a touch of fever in their veins. 6th graders no longer act like sixth graders. They’re practically teenagers and now have the mouths and attitudes to fit.

When I thought about being a teacher, I had two points of reference. One teacher that I never want to be, and one that I wished I could be.

In sixth grade, I started a new school. I was a shy, quiet girl who was petrified of meeting new people. Very unsure of myself. I had recently left the ugly duckling stage. In the previous months, I had shed that baby fat and traded glasses for contacts. I had turned into the swan, or so my mom liked to tell me. I really didn’t believe her. I’d rather hide behind a book.

Enter the 6th grade English teacher to give me some advice. English has always been my favorite subject. Math has seemed like a foreign language; science grosses me out. I’ve learned to appreciate history after being married to a history buff, but, unfortunately, I never had a history teacher that made it come alive. But I’ve always loved reading, literature. I even thought grammar, diagramming sentences was fun. (It all makes sense now – see I was destined to become an English teacher.)

This first week at a new school was intimidating. I was shy. I was nervous. I was a pre-teen who wanted desperately to fit in. A few kids talked to me, but mostly I blended in with the shadows.

My one joy was English class. We were reading Where the Red Fern Grows, a classic tearjerker. We had been diagramming sentences, and I felt empowered. I understood what to do! We wrote in our journals, and I wrote about my new house and my dad’s new job. I was feeling a little more confident that day, and then in stepped my English teacher. A woman who should have already retired. This stern woman whom no other student liked, held me after class, right before lunch. I had never been in trouble at school before. Most teachers didn’t know I existed. My heart started pounding. What had I done?

I remember the rest of the class trickling out the door until it was just me and this stern-looking woman with a head of white hair. She strode to her desk. The woman had great posture. She started to sit behind her desk and then thought better of it. She peered down at me over her reading glasses.

“Little girl, I’m onto you.”

My mouth opened but nothing came out.

Turns out she didn’t want me to speak. She was just pausing for dramatic effect.

“I see the way you’re acting. You think you’re better than everyone else. I’m going to give you some advice:  You need to come off your high horse. You’ll never make any friends if you keep that stuck-up attitude.”

Tears swelled in my eyes, but I wouldn’t let them go. I clenched my teeth. I squeaked out, “Yes, ma’am.” I could think of nothing to say. All I wanted to do was cry. But not in front of this woman. Could I run away from the school down the street to my new house? It wasn’t far. How much trouble would I get into? But no one would be home. And I didn’t have a key.

Instead, I slumped out of the classroom and made it to the lunchroom. I pulled out my peanut butter and jelly and sat alone. I didn’t even try and sit with anyone. The 30 seconds I had spent with that judgmental woman had sapped any make-believe confidence I had. I wanted my momma.

My story has a happy ending. I survived this blow. I remember a honey-blond, freckle-faced girl coming to sit by me, inviting me to sit with her friends. We would eventually become best friends, but today I didn’t know that. Today, I didn’t have the strength to move. I barely had the strength to smile. But I did it. I put on a fake face, and I jaw-clenched my way through the rest of the day.

At home, I had parents who wanted to hear about my day. Usually, they were met with “Good” or  “Fine” but today they were gut-slammed with hysterical tears. But they knew just what to do.

My story has a happy ending. No, I never trusted that teacher. And I didn’t overcome my shyness or my phobia of speaking up in class. (I literally got sick to my stomach if I even thought a teacher might call on me. And oral presentations. Forget it. I would rather take a snake home as a pet.) My happy ending was because I had two parents at home who cared about me. Who went to bat for me.

Turns out this woman was ancient. She had been my dad’s English teacher. They had a history. He looked her up in the phone book and gave her a call. When she found out I was his daughter, she fell all over herself apologizing. But the damage was done.

What I learned that year was how my quiet nature came across to people. Stuck-up. I didn’t learn how to overcome it, just that it existed.

I learned that people will judge you no matter what you do.

I learned that words can’t be taken back. Apologizing just shines the surface of a cracked self-image.

I learned that no matter how kind I was on the inside, there would be those who would interpret my quietness as being stuck-up.

I learned that people are broken.

I learned to hate my quiet nature, shyness even more. Not only did it make me miserable because I already wished I was different, now I had proof. Others didn’t like it either.

This is one of my frames of reference for teaching. I never want a student of mine to feel the way I felt. So I seek out those quiet students. I observe and watch which kids get left out.

I’m not perfect. In fact, a few years ago, one of the mothers of one of my students came to me because she said her daughter felt like I didn’t like her. It crushed me. But it showed me how much I have to work to overcome my quiet, reserved nature. So, I really focus on smiling. Some days, though, my exhaustion wears me thin, and I struggle.

With teaching, each day is different. I am never bored. One day might be bad, but the next could make it all worth it.

I have to remember that not all kids have parents at home to smooth things out, to build their kids back up after they’ve been beaten down at school. Those are the kids I keep a look out for. Teachers can’t save every kid, can’t make a life-changing effect on every kid. But we can save some. We can look out for some.

When I’m feeling burdened and overwhelmed, when I’m feeling exhausted and like I don’t make a difference, I remember that stern woman and I’m thankful.

She helps me remember that my words do matter. They matter to someone. There just might be a shy girl in my class. So, even if I feel like yelling or giving a lecture because my students are driving me crazy since it’s May 5th and their hormones are swimming; they stayed up too late last night playing video games; or they didn’t get a good breakfast this morning; or an even worse scenario, I tell myself I’m the adult. I can break a kid, or I can make her day. The choice is mine. Most days, I’m thankful for that chance. To right a wrong that happened over 30 years ago. Today, I’m feeling a little exhausted. Thank goodness one of the moms made that cherry cheesecake that I love for Teacher Appreciation Week. I’m going to lose myself in that.



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