I teach them English, but I want to change their lives.
I’m back in my grade seven classroom after summer, looking at a wide range of new faces. Lots of boys—some who still proclaim their love for mom, their feet dangling from their seats. Others who would rather be skateboarding, but instead poke a friend in front. I have girls as well, many on the brink of womanhood.
I want them to fall in love with language, with words, to have fun when they have to pronounce Schenectady and pusillanimous.
When they’re grown, I want them to find the right words to woo a lover, to hush a whimpering child, to give encouragement to a doubtful teenager. I want words to be there when they have to save themselves or someone they love. Some will meet tragedy and heartache; some will never make it to their graduation. Others will find success but ever so slowly.
But I don’t tell them that. Instead I teach them complete sentences, irregular verbs and to avoid double negatives. I remind them that they learned to capitalize the beginning of a sentence in what, first grade? So do ya think you can start doing it now? I say, “Write your first and last name on your work from now until you die.”
I want them to be heard.
A new generation of voices that may not save this world, but may die trying. In the midst of dealing with lost lunch tickets, paper cuts and random questions, I teach them to write well, read often, listen carefully and speak with conviction. I tell them to be kind. Always be kind.
And I try to keep them safe.
In case of intruders, I practice lock down drills. I get lectured on blood-borne pathogens and staph infections. I’m given gloves and band-aids, refreshed on how to wash my hands properly. I make sure to shred every piece of graded work left behind in my class to insure students’ privacy according to FERPA, the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
I will try to raise their MCAS scores to meet No Child Left Behind’s adequate yearly progress requirement. This year I will spend nearly a month prepping them for the writing portion of the test. And beginning in the year 2013, as a result of Massachusetts adopting President Obama’s Race to the Top program, my evaluation as a teacher will be tied to how well my students do on that test. Professional development will be time spent on revising the school’s curriculum to reflect the new Common Core State Standards.
There are days when this task feels too monumental, but every day is different. And on some days, I confess, there is something about teaching in the public school system that tempts me to sidle up to my neighborhood bar and drink Margaritas till I’m numb.
Some days it is the kids. Some days it’s the constant squawk of interruptions over the public address system. Other days it’s the administration and their push to get me behind the latest trendy initiative, or a disgruntled colleague who should have retired years ago.
But instead of hitting the bar, I attend yoga classes because they center me after a hectic day.
This is good because I am getting rounder in the middle, which is great if you’re a Scooter Pie. It’s important to stay in shape for this job and despite everything, I keep coming back because my mortgage is a reality and my retirement a distant dream.
But there’s more to it. I love my subject matter, language. I am passionate about it. Passion is contagious. And students are savvy. They sniff out indifference immediately. For the most part—with the exception of correcting—I still have fun in my classroom. Where else would I have encountered 13 year-old Lucas Keller?
In the middle of this past spring, Lucas took to writing his name backwards on everything he handed in, so he was no longer Lucas Keller, but Sacul Rellek. His classmates began calling him Sacul. He stood by my door at the beginning of first period, asking for donations from entering students. Not a profitable venture, but I admired his tenacity. He sat in the back of the room, took out his collection of pencils and lined them up on his desk like a little yellow raft.
Sacul asked a lot of questions: a few were pertinent, but many were off topic and silly, sometimes infuriating: Do you knit? Do you want my name on the paper? Does this count? Often he elicited groans from his peers, but that didn’t bother him. He took 10 minutes to sharpen his pencil to avoid a five-minute writing prompt. He was tall and clunky like a Great Dane puppy. I’ll miss him.
I’ve returned for a new year.
I expect I’ll still have to explain to my students the difference between a proper noun and a pronoun a zillion times and that they have never had a guardian “angle”, but an angel and that they wear clothes, not “cloths.” Someone’s got to do it.
I’m back for the way kids’ legs dangle from their seats and the way they proclaim their love for mom, for their creative homework excuses, their malleability, their misapprehensions and their voices. Like Caroline, who wrote at the end of last year, “Sometimes poetry comes hard for me and sometimes it comes to me like an angel in the air.”
I keep coming back because of students like her and Lucas, and always with the thought that today might be a very good day.
Mary Ellen Redmond earned her MFA in Poetry from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in 5 a.m., The Drunken Boat, RATTLE and The Comstock Review. A proud Navy mom, her son is a member of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force. When she is not teaching English to seventh graders, she is working on her first poetry manuscript. She lives on Cape Cod, a glacial afterthought that juts into the Atlantic off the coast of Massachusetts.~Editor: April Hayes
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