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Friday, March 9, 2012

Back To the Halls of Valley High: A Teacher's Lament

I walked through the halls of my old high school the other day on my way to a general assembly in the gymnasium. Since remodeling and rebuilding some years ago, the school system had converted the building to the middle school facility. I attended high school there and taught there for over twenty years. The contractors have made some functional changes, but "my old school" looked pretty much the same as she always had. I felt comfortable, nostalgic and "at home" in the familiar environs.

I loved my affair with my old school, both the carefree high school days I spent with her and the extended years she generously housed my profession. I had endeared myself to her close quarters that had once loyally served me and so many of my friends -- my classmates and my ex-students. The old girl still stood so splendid in physical form and so rich in beautiful memories.

A deluge of emotion swept over me as I made my way down the halls. The laughter, the tears, the sweat, the fears, the maturation, the disappointments,  the achievements, the "first experiences" --  all of these relics of the past flooded my brain with every step. These things had occurred here and had become a part of who I am.

I soon realized the bricks and mortar of the structure represented a skeletal formation within myself and inside this framework lay my heart comprised of the most significant fabric of my life. I had silently left her without so much as a "thank you" so many years ago, but she still had waited patiently for me to return. The place whispered, "I'm still 'your girl,' and I will forever be with you."

Now, I know about now, you think I'm one of those nuts who has an obsession to make love to a Toyota Camry or to a Gibson guitar. And, who knows, maybe my warped state of mind had something to do with my intense feelings during my visit.  And, while in the building, that thought did hit my mind -- "You are one sick, sentimental bastard." Still, I felt I had been born to love "my girl." No words could express how much I cherished her. And, have some mercy for me because my time with her had truly etched deep designs in my soul.

A school should be filled with love. "My girl" always overwhelmed me with a seemingly endless supply of that passion. Friends, mentors, and co-workers had cared so much about me and treated me with great amity. And, most of all, students had opened their young minds and hearts to allow me to share with them some of the staples of communication and dog-eat-dog survival. All in all, we worked our asses off, but over time we loved to learn from each other as we learned to love each other.

The products -- the students -- are the heart and the soul of "my girl." They are the rapidly maturing lifeblood of the school with spirits that sometimes wain under the demands of a relentless schedule  only to regain great resurgence while releasing new and boundless energies. Each day they supply the school with periods of solitary design and youthful vitality making "my girl" full of intrigue and ever-changing vision. When the students are freely flowing through her system, she becomes the most precious treasure of the town.

OK, so you're tired of the hackneyed metaphor. I understand. But let me make one more point about conditions. If you are an alien and you want to know what really constitutes a school, don't talk with the administration or with the faculty. Instead, speak to a broad cross section of the student body. You will find "a lot goes on" and "quite a few things just pass time." The students who just want to "do their time" attempt to schedule their days with stagnant classes. Those who believe they deserve the best education look for active teachers who demand significant improvement from their classes. I'm not putting all the burden for education on students either, for every school has deadbeat staff and puffy, insignificant programs.

Gosh, let me get back to the hallway and my walk to the gym. See how easily my students could get me sidetracked? I was in school that day with SOLACE, a support group for people who have lost a loved one to drug abuse. The county is experienced an rx drug health epidemic. SOLACE is dedicated to saving young lives.

After entering the gym, the seventh and eighth grade classes filed in and took a seat in the bleachers. Before the program began, I looked at the mass of students. They looked so young, so eager, and so beautiful. And yet I knew they were in for many more years filled with significant risks and great opportunities. I wanted so badly to convey to each one the necessity of using their intelligence and problem-solving skills to mature slowly and safely. A teacher always expects a perfect score from every motivated student. The biggest challenge is to inspire and provoke a wide variety of personalities to love learning.

Another thought entered my mind as I scanned the crowd -- How many of these youth are afforded the parental guidance and supervision needed to experience proper innocence during a slow maturation? I prayed that all of them had the tools and the environment that would allow them to succeed and to flourish. Sitting before me was the future and I wanted to tell this generation about everything I thought might help them survive. Of course, I couldn't do that. The time nor the setting didn't allow.

Sadly, I knew some of these kids were soon going to hit the "bump in the road" that wrecks their means of motivation. More troubling, I knew some, even at the seventh and eighth grade level, had already begun traveling a dangerous route and experimenting with potentially deadly designs. No, I didn't tell them that.

Instead, I encouraged them to engage in positive activities, to make the best of their lives, to be careful and to avoid anything that could become a bad habit. I knew some would forget these words as soon as the utterances entered their ears. Teachers learn to be realistic to avoid breaking down daily with feelings of inadequacy. "No child left behind" has become a boondoggle.

The speakers from SOLACE presented their testimonies and carefully chosen advice with great skill. During the talks, the students were wonderfully attentive and extremely well-behaved. The assembly came to an end and so did the the school day.

After talking briefly with friends and staff, I began walking back up the hallway to my car. This time I thoughtfully bid "my girl" a fond goodbye until our next meeting. I told her I really hated to leave and I would miss her. I said I would pray that her "new blood" keeps serving her well and keeps preserving her timeless beauty. I told her she will always be with me in memory.

I got into my car and drove toward home with mixed emotions. How great it had been to be back in my hometown and in my school. I had realized my reattachment to a special place. I felt as if I had regained some magic of my past. I felt young and rejuvenated. I had experienced "my girl's" undying love firsthand. This was the first time since I quit teaching for me to experience this intimacy.

At the same time, I felt inadequate. I had left my teaching position a decade earlier because of health issues. I began to remember the guilt I felt for years after I had walked away. I had underachieved and this feeling of failure haunted me to no end. In my condition, I had become "different" -- me, a longstanding teacher had been reduced to "a mental problem." Once diagnosed and certified, "different" people find most others in their world to be distrusting and even fearful of their deformity.

Still digesting my experiences of the afternoon, I pulled into my driveway. I unbuckled my seat belt and ended my excursion to my old school. That finality made me realize that what I still miss so much about "my girl" is her exquisite heart and soul: the young students.

Over the years, as I contributed my little offerings to them, the seniors and sophomores in my classes continually saturated me in a stream of infinite love. They wouldn't admit it, I'm sure, but they treated me, and still treat me, with such kindness and concern that I know I am truly blessed that they have entered my life. Any trace of a decent teacher I became, I owe to them. I can never repay their kindness. I can, however, rejoice with them as they live good, successful lives.

If only I could share "teaching" -- not silly paperwork, not overblown written planning, not constant grading, not office duties, not being given added "Micky Mouse" State duties, not creating books of objectives, not scoring homework and tests and compositions to the point of exhaustion -- I would still daily be with "my girl."

I was born to be, educated to be, and fashioned to be a teacher. While a teacher without students may not be able to teach, he can remain in love with the core of his profession. Even a "different" one has not lost his desire. 
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