The third in a series of five essays about my 32nd year of teaching.
During the first few years at my first school, I talked to an older teacher about some hot issue under discussion at the lunch table. He offered what I thought profound wisdom, and I said, “You’re right! You should say that at the next faculty meeting.”
He chuckled and shook his head, “No one wants to hear me say that.”
I thought colleagues ought to listen but understand better now. He was right both in his wisdom and his assessment of its reception. Schools can be confusing for older faculty, simultaneously deferential and dismissive. The meeting might agree and still couldn’t hear it. Old hands have experience to speak—colleagues listen politely—but schools run on youthful energy. Some veterans feel compelled to speak. Others accept the unconscious suspicion greeting remarks so far behind the times.
I’m often forgiven for being out of touch now. I’m like the colleague I remember, reluctant to contribute, generally content to listen to younger voices… until I can no longer stand to remain silent. Then, frequently, I regret speaking.
My first year I taught a class made up of budding mean-girl sixth graders, and they took a dislike to me immediately. My other sections seemed to accept my authority (or at least to like me well enough), but this group actively loathed me. They thought me rigid, unfair, and stuck-up, and, in response, I became more rigid, unfair, and stuck-up. Whatever I proposed, they opposed. I insisted, they resisted. It’s funny how quickly a class spirals downward when students distrust you, and you, in turn, come to distrust them. It took a while to learn that.
I remember the ring-leader’s name, the one who hated me most. She holds a curiously warm place in my heart because, one fateful day, we made up. “Look,” I said to her, “we just have to give each other a chance tomorrow. Let’s like each other and see what happens.” I still can’t believe it worked. What wonders come from risk. What risks we abide when young. Class morale and productivity rose. They learned to tolerate me, and I got to teach another year. It was a year of a little more self-control and restraint. Since then, they’ve all been. That’s what it means to be a professional.
But I lost something too. My job once felt volatile, filled with days of danger and unaccountable excitement. I rarely worry now—perils have faded as I’ve leaned into an even strain. “Pace yourself,” one of my early mentors told me, “don’t take anything personally.” Her strategy has worked too well. Young teachers experience a different level of vitality. Though a class, a day, or a week might run them to exhaustion, they test assumptions and believe in different outcomes. They innovate and renovate and wouldn’t say, as I caught myself thinking the other day about curriculum revision, “I’m sure it doesn’t matter much.”
No misunderstanding, please. I mean only to report where I sit. Co-workers may say they admire my energy, my dedication, my continued relevance. Some might even express a wish to become me, to be as relevant when they reach my station on the salary scale. I appreciate these sentiments. Yet veneration isn’t significance. It’s a haven for faded impact, emeritus ambition, passé originality, civil gentility. The venerable are harmless, no threat, no risk to new agendas, no meaningful obstacle or addition.
For the first few years, I howled after every graduation ceremony. On the way home in my car, I’d turn the music loud and honk the horn at no one. I felt as though I’d driven through rings of fire. I celebrated mountains and valleys, ascent and descent. I thought teaching was harrowing but, as long as June arrived, I was content. I’d not yet learned to be reliable, consistent, and composed. Students loved and hated me. Other teachers—older teachers—shook their heads. Class was consequential, real, rewarding of labor and sacrifice.
It still is, I think, but I don’t always know it.