I finished my last graduate courses on Tuesday. As I walked to the train talking with a colleague who had begun the NYC Teaching Fellows program at the same time as me, he remarked on how different we had become since that first summer during our initial training before entering the classroom. How innocent we were then! Teaching changes you, indelibly.
I remember how on top of the world I felt at that time, even as I knew the challenges that awaited me. I had been a manager at a demanding and innovative grocery retailer and was physically fit, accustomed to breaking down pallets of heavy groceries, dealing with crazy customers, and working on one full meal a day with 4-6 hours of sleep and a 1 1/2 hour to 2-hour commute each way on what was generally a middle-of-the-night series of subway trains. Yes! I finally had adapted to NYC after a recent move from Lake Tahoe and felt I was ready to tackle anything. Phew. Folks. What hubris, what folly.
See, the thing is that teaching takes much more than simple ambition, physical drive, stamina, and dedication. It takes deep internal spiritual and emotional wellsprings to maintain composure and constancy. Every facet of your being will be challenged, every hidden assumption, every underlying prejudice, every underdeveloped part of your psyche and soul, every trigger of anger or annoyance will be released and exposed and prodded and overturned. You will be scraped hollow. You will be on the verge of mental breakdowns — or actually have them, depending on your level of mental stability. You will nearly break into tears — or actually break into tears, depending on your level of stoicism — in front of other adults or students. Oh yes. Teaching changes you.
And there will be days when you wonder, given how close to the breaking point you can come, just at what point a human mind becomes broken and can no longer be made whole again. And at the verge of this question is a rift of despair and anguish so deep that you can’t really quite go there — you have to wall off the reality of the lives of your students from your own life in order to protect your own emotional and mental well-being. Your students. Some of them living lives so unfathomable that you have to build a wall of professionalism in order to protect yourself. Or risk craziness, despair. Breaking down into tears at the mere mention of their name. Because it’s not about you. It’s about them. It’s always about them. And even during the most challenging moments of confrontation, even during the worst days of acting out behavior, you know that this is all about serving them. About becoming a better person so that you can better serve them. Becoming a better teacher so that you can negotiate the landmine pathways of the heart and mind and guide them there by proxy.
Anyone who thinks that he or she can step into the midst of this situation and create a revolution will not survive. Idealism has little place in the day-to-day marathon battle of seeking to transform the very soil that these children are rooted within, confined within. Only steady, patient, nurturing, every day, constant, consistent, repeated love–love–love. Tough love. Real love. Love that does not accept mediocrity. Love that does not accept falsehood. Love that does not accept anything except the best from your beloved. Because you know that’s what they really are. The best. No matter what they tell themselves. No matter how much they try to show you the worst in them (and they will — it’s a child’s way of testing your commitment). Every day. The best. Only the best. The best in you. The best in them. Even when neither of you have it in you. You come the next day to try again.
Until one day, there is a moment when you look around you, into their eyes, into their hearts, and you feel it. You can feel it. Again, you almost begin crying, but this time, for another reason. It’s love. It’s real. And it is changing you. And if it is changing you, it must be, it must be changing your students, too. This is what you came here to do. And that is the only thing that can keep you going. That hope. That wish. That love.