Through a Mirror Darkly


I had an experience yesterday that left me shivering with the thoughts of what could have been. Totally shaken to the core in fact. It took me a day to finally sit down and gather my thoughts to tell the story. So here it is:

It actually started back in 1986, but we will get to that.

School started for me last week.  5 minutes before first period on the first day when I was supposed to start my administrative assignment of Hall Walking (gotta keep the halls safe for DEMOCRACY) I was approached by one of the Assistant Principals and re-assigned to Greeter Duty – where I sit by the front door of the school and smile at incoming adults and send them to the office and “tut tut’ the late students make them sign the late sheet and give them a pass to class. As administrative assignments go, it is not bad.(whether it is an important thing to make teachers do is the subject of yet another future post…(Wait! what do you mean I have a backlog of a 473 future posts?)

Well I was sitting in my Greeter chair with my Greeter smile on as a new adult walked through the doors. As I said cheerily, “Hello!” I realized that I recognized a face I had not seen in over 15 years. The face had aged but it was still the face of an old friend and fellow teacher from  my early career.It was also the face of the teacher I most respected and had patterned myself after. I greeted him warmly and after a double take he recognized me and we happily started chatting.

It was all downhill after that.

In order to understand, I need to explain a little about my past. I started teaching in 1986. I was offered three jobs on the same day. I chose to teach in inner city Rochester instead of the most affluent suburb of Buffalo, even though I lived in Buffalo. You see, I was going to save the world. I have already said here before that I was not a good teenager. But I realized during college (actually a week before getting my physics degree)that I owed everything to my teachers. They had saved me. I was going to pay it forward. So I took a job at an inner city school. It was a magnet school but not the kind that took only the elite. It took anyone who said they had an interest in science.I learned quickly that saving the world was not an option. But I could try to save a few kids. And this is where(let’s call him “Ray”) Ray comes in.  Ray was a social studies teacher. But that is like calling President Obama “A good talker.”  Ray never stopped. If class had ended, he was helping a kid. In fact, the only time you saw Ray without a student around was when he was fighting the adults to help him help the students. Ray got things done.  No student ever went without help if Ray knew he needed it. And if a student needed someone in her corner, Ray was there. I looked up to the man. With my new teacher’s eyes I idolized what he was able to accomplish. “No” was not in his vocabulary. And he was only a few years(maybe 5?) older than me. I learned,from him, to not let the status quo stop me.  I learned,from him, that most things were just speed bumps in the way of progress. I worked with the man for almost ten years and was always in awe of him.

Then I abandoned him and the kids I was helping.

It was the hardest day of my teaching career.  A day I have always regretted in my heart.

But I had to do it.

I left the school and the students I loved.

You see, I had my back broken by four students the year before. The district did everything in their power to hide it from the press and the world. They never punished the kids.

But they punished me.

I went to the papers. I broke the code of silence.

When I came back to school(against doctor’s wishes) they made my life miserable.

So I left.

I eventually ended up in Fairport where they have helped me bloom into the teacher I am today. I am proud of what i have become. But there was always that feeling inside that told me I should still be back at my old school.

That feeling is gone now. Replaced with sadness and almost relief.

Back to yesterday. I was so excited to see “Ray.” I couldn’t help but feel bubbling up inside me, ready to burst, all the wonderful events of my past few years. But first I wanted to hear what he had been up to. So I asked him what he was up to and where he was teaching(I had recently heard all of the teachers at my old school were gone.)

There was an awkward silence and he replied “Oh. You didn’t hear? I left teaching in ’96.”

Shock and Awe is probably the best way to describe my reaction. I couldn’t reply. I kinda just stood there and stared for a moment. “Why?” I finally stuttered.

“It finally got to me,” he said,”I could not handle the chaos on all sides. I couldn’t handle the constant neediness from one side and the constant refusal to help from the other. I could not be a one man show any longer. One day I just burned out. I could not take another day of the aggravation. I had to leave education altogether.”

I was so upset that i could not talk about anything much after that. Especially not about how great I had it during the past 15 years. I felt so bad that one of the best teachers I had ever met was no longer with kids. I thought about all those kids that he was not there for. I mourned the loss of that feeling you get when you know you have just helped a student out.  The day he left teaching, education died a little.

We talked a while longer and I learned that he was visiting the school for his new job with a national group for at risk behaviors. But he never meets with kids anymore. And administrations pay him to come in and the listen to him because he from outside a school. He said he was happy with this life, but that look was not on his face. That look he used to have in school. Now his smile was sad in a way.

We shook hands and parted. And I was sad. For Him.  But gradually that feeling changed over the course of the day as a new feeling came over me.

Relief.

For 15 years I had harboured  a bad feeling about leaving my old school. Suddenly, a picture came to mind of me if I had not left when I did.

Of me having to leave a few years later.

Burned Out.

Never to be with students again.

A shiver just went through my body. Again.

I made the right choice. I found a place that supports me. Me with my weird ways. My outspoken ways. It knows me and in its own weird way,it accepts me.

We still have problems. Big Problems. But that is not important.

What is important is that I am allowed to do the thing I do best.

Help Kids.

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3 thoughts on “Through a Mirror Darkly

  1. Wow, Gene. If I read this correctly, he left not long after you left! Through my volunteer work I interact with a lot of teachers. I have gained so much respect for them and have a greater appreciation for the classroom time that they “loan” me. You can tell the ones who want to help kids. The sad thing to see is the ones who are burned out who are still in the classroom. Sad. (Those BTW are not the ones who invite me into their classrooms.)

  2. Hi Gene. I am in Dr. Strange’s EDM310 class at the University of South Alabama and i just wanted to say that this was a very moving post! It is great to see teachers who actually care for students as much as you and Ray do. I can understand where he comes from about getting burned out because i hear it happens all the time in schools, however with your position I commend you for sticking with it and getting back into education after your incident. I think that shows your true character and love and care for the students. I will have comments on My Blog soon feel free to stop by anytime

  3. Thank you Cody. I enjoy teaching more than anything. There is nothing which can compete with the feeling that you have helped a person learn something. With that said, teaching is hard and will tear you apart at times. Being able to get through the tough parts so that you can enjoy the best parts of this job takes experience and a sense of purpose that needs to be refilled from time to time. I wish you the best as you enter this amazing profession.

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