When You Get Lit : And Burn

Posted on 21 May 2019 Tuesday


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I’ve been struggling with a topic for this essay for weeks now with my mind flooding with memories from my 12 years as a classroom teacher. I could just write a book and fill it with faces and their stories.

I want to document my first principal, the one who hired white teachers in the all black grade school by telling them “they [Blacks] can’t teach themselves.” And, then my second principal, the Black woman at the high school where I went to next. I still hear her voice reminding me that these students are all someone’s child. And the next 4? 5? principals who were in and out as if they were in a revolving door in the front office thus indicating that the district had given up on us.

Oh, I stayed too long.

I didn’t realize I’d burned out while I was still teaching. Did it happen around the time I went on blood pressure medication? Divorced? Maybe it was the year we tried to count the days in a row without a fight, but couldn’t because there were too many days with them. Or, perhaps it was during the year with all the bomb threats.

No, it couldn’t have been the divorce because that’s when I decided to place my own mental health as my first priority. Surely such a thought requires a modicum of sanity.

As an introvert I didn’t build the lifelines, didn’t connect with other teacher friends who could have eased my workday traumas. There was the traumas of being in perpetual on-the-job-training, simultaneously trying to learn my students and how they learned. There was figuring out how to get homework from a child who faced more personal trauma in a day than I had in my entire life. And then there was the effort to not to be right all the time, but to do right.

Teachers face the burn together, some fast and some slow. I think the most important part of teaching is learning and if you’re resistant to learning, you’ll probably burn out faster. I’m judging no one but me: I can be awfully hard headed.  Sure, there were those who spoke too often of these students; these low-income, Black, urban children who didn’t perform well with the curriculum we used. But, there were teachers who spoke of them with compassion, too. Some really good ones. These were the teachers who remembered that these students were someone’s child.

Gibson and Carson. They cared so much they ended up taking students home and raising them. They stood up for these students; gave them their daily bread.

Griffin; “Griff”. Griff did it with dignity until they pulled it out from under him. Griff was that teacher no senior wanted to have because that semester in his class would be pure hell. But, Griff had been teaching for such a long time, he was that phoenix rising from the ashes, burned out and reconstituted. Heart still intact. Guidance counselors went straight to Griff with their hands out and palms up when students needed money to cover SATs, ACTs or graduation robes. And, when students came back to visit as alumni, guess who they went to see? Griff, in his suit and tie every, every day was a dignified black man who stood up for these students, even when no one was looking; especially when no one was looking.

Tyler looked out for them, too. We called him “Black Moses” because he got these students through the math portion of the Graduation Qualifying Exam so they could indeed graduate. He knew already what Duncan taught me: these students are the first in their families to graduate high school. They just want to get out and get a job. Help them go out through the front door, not the back.

I managed to pull some of my own weight. I brought my passion into what I was doing and took students overseas. Butler and I took a group of girls to Japan and a few years later, McAllister and I took some to China. I’d like to think we opened their eyes to possibilities around them; showed them that Black people belong wherever they want to go and that we provided them with more ways to create and define their world. I enjoyed the pleasure of their company in unknown lands. And, this slowed the burn.

Garland brought her passion to the library every year with her student’s annual poetry slam.
She nurtured her students’ talents and honed their poetic skillz in such a way
that their voices brought shine to the community that day.
Mothers and fathers would attend
Some students would cut class and come in.
They memorized their lines, dressed to the nines
and were stars on the stage droppin lines oozing with humor, rhythm and rage.

The burn is slower when there’s less friction, when the educators aren’t resistant to what students are trying to teach them. I know I had (have!) a lot to learn and I think I’ve always done it the hard way. Yet, I did learn from Ebony (not her real name). As teachers, we connect with some students more than others and Ebony was one I’m still connected with. Students don’t reach out to teachers because they need friends; they need someone to be their lifeline. Ebony was close to graduation but, she was starting to slip. Her teacher, who didn’t know her, thought it was ‘senioritis’. But, I’d known Ebony for 4 years and knew it wasn’t Ebony who was slipping, it was her mom who’d gone off her meds again forcing Ebony to become head of her household. I stood up for her and helped get her through. These students need us to do right by them because we have an obligation to them.

While there was a whole world that would judge my Darron (not his real name) for his sagging pants, I was that adult who knew that he was a kind, precious young man who would spend as many hours as he could after school in the library looking at books. I had to honor him, his family and his education.

Oh, Toni (not her real name) needed us! Homeless. Parentless. I don’t think I ever did enough for her. She taught me to watch out for the quiet ones, the ones who do the work and show up every day until they don’t. Whatever is the greatest form of perseverance, Toni had it because she graduated and went on to college.

That’s the thing with our children: they have greater needs than I can understand, and they also had/have more potential than I can imagine. The rub is figuring out how to ignite that potential. And how to do that cannot be taught.

Collectively, almost as a family, we made it through times of fear, too. I remember that day so clearly. Standardized testing had just begun but teachers quickly spread the news to each other that we’d been attacked by terrorists with airplanes in Washington and New York City. The students wouldn’t be told until testing was done for the day. But, how would we tell them? Do we watch it in class? This was a time of collective uncertainty and we adults had to guide the students through it. There were no meetings with no impromptu curriculum development. We had to let go of familiar teaching strategies and improvise ways to find meaning and provide a sense of safety for these students and for ourselves.

When I became a teacher back in 1992, my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be any good at it. I felt successful in all the jobs I’d previously held and there I was, about to begin the one career I really, truly wanted. What if I was a failure?

I’m a librarian now. My school district sent me back to school after 12 years of teaching and I transitioned to the library. I never thought I would want to leave the classroom. Sure, it was hard work but it felt like my vocation. I don’t know when I burned out, but I realized it had happened several months after being here at the university. If we hadn’t been taken over by the state, perhaps I would have stayed longer. Perhaps I would have given it another year, or three or four even though it would have been too long.

What is it that pushes educators past the burning point? Surely it has to be more than finances or vesting in retirement plans. There are other ways to build a career, other professions that earn more prestige and more income. If you think it’s about the summers, you don’t realize you spent half the summer recovering and the other half preparing. Honestly, from this little trip down memory lane, I really think it’s because teachers are courageous.

High school teachers have the courage to stand alone in front of a class of 16 year olds and believe that have the ability to teach something to these students, to the future. That’s scary! We feel fear, but we continue; we persevere. We have a passion for learning, for the content we teach, for young people or even for life it self and we bring that passion into our work. That passion emboldens us to stand up for others and we do so with dignity and grace. In that moment, we may feel the burn more than we feel the grace but, when we look back even the difficult trying times simmer and glow in our hearts. Teaching takes courage.

Arlington High School was taken over by the state of Indiana in 2012. It was returned to Indianapolis Public Schools and converted to a middle school in 2018.

This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Tiana Silvas (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle)

Posted in: Me Being Me