Saturday, December 10, 2011

We Hardly Recognize Ourselves

a former student

Not too long after after my husband explains that for every year he remains a NJ public school teacher he will bring less money home thanks to hard caps and the required co-pays for health insurance, he asks me if I would still have become an educator given the ways things are now: the absence of money, the instability of work, the disrespect. 

His question gives me pause.

Would you have done this? Or would you have become a lawyer who makes art? he asks.

A lawyer making art makes me smile, but the question really pokes at a larger sense of loss I know each of us feels.  It's not that I work as an educator, but rather that I am an educator and have been one since I volunteered as a poet in residence at a school in Harlem and realized that I loved being with kids. I was 19. We talk a lot about passion in learning, and clearly being with kids lit me up.  I had not prepared to be a teacher and returned to college to become certified.  I began teaching high school English in the 1980s and supplemented my income by tending bar. Since then I have held a range of positions in public schools: teacher, director, assistant superintendent and most recently, professor.

I think of my husband who is now an English teacher and recall when he visited my high school classroom in a rural section of NJ and stood on the top of a desk to discuss the myth of elevated works of literature and then climbed down and blew away my seniors by reading his poetry aloud.  He would later tell me that he could see how much I loved what I did and that he would like to become a teacher too. In his 40th year he sold a business in Hell's Kitchen, we lived lean, and he became a teacher.

As a teacher, I carry the memory of former students with me.  They (in)form who I am; help me to negotiate my way in the world.  Even if I never work again in education, I will remain a teacher, and the memory of the work--the art and practice of it--will continue to give meaning to my life.  It's like the speaker who at the end of William Carlos Williams's The Desert Music, declares:
                                                  I am a poet! I

am. I am. I am a poet, I reaffirmed, ashamed

See, that's what the non-educators turn expert-overnight-crowd can't comprehend.  Teaching isn't merely a job. 

There are times I forget that--doubt it.  In these days when respect is thin, money tight, obligation heavy, and everyone who has never actually been a teacher is an expert--it's easy to doubt my choices; easy to not recognize my very self.  Like the Williams's speaker who questions and reaffirms that he is a poet, my knowing and doubting brings relief and shame. 

A lawyer making art? 


Unlikely.













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