"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Question Answered

In the fall I asked myself the question almost every day. Why am I back in the classroom? The simple answer, that we needed the money, while true, did not satisfy. There are other ways to make money. It was made clear in a variety of subtle but unmistakable nudges, that I was meant to go back to teaching. That I ended up back in fifth grade seemed both gift (I love this age in ways that make no sense), and punishment (Hadn't I already done my time? Didn't I deserve to move on?).

I searched for the real answer in every child who crossed my path. Are you the one I'm here for? I searched in my adult encounters. Do you have wisdom for me, or I for you? I searched my heart and mind in the exhausted stillness of the time that's neither night nor day into which I awakened far too often.

Events happened that seemed like they might be answers.

A girl standing by my desk at the start of a bright spring day. She's wearing the same stained white coat she's worn every day, the one I ask her several times a day to take off when I look up and find her sleeping, her head tucked down like she's in a cocoon. She's late more often than not, so I'm surprised to see her. I'm even more surprised by the flower she extends to me, her face lit in a proud smile. I take it with all due delight, wondering whose flowering cherry tree she ripped the branch from on her walk to school. I remember this same girl from a few months before, silent and never smiling, hiding under her desk one day. Then avoiding our Friday ritual of hugs or handshakes by slipping around and out, now clinging to me on many days saying she doesn't want to leave.

A third grader with a story that would break a weaker heart who somehow has become my buddy. Her face lights up (as does mine) when she sees me in the hall. Great hugs. A trip to my room one morning so I can give her a nutritious snack to balance out the bag of chips she was eating for breakfast. Another morning she extends a hand full of peacock feathers toward me, telling me she'd brought them for sharing. We stand for long minutes as she tells me everything she knows about peacocks, including the fact that they climb trees because they can't fly. (They actually do fly up into the branches of trees, and don't literally climb up the trunk, but she convinced me enough that I looked it up.)

Lars. I'd forgotten about him. My heart leaps the first time I see him in the hallway. He's in third grade now, not much bigger than when I knew him as a kindergartner. Still tow-headed, still disheveled, still radiating light like no other child in my world. "Lars!" I hold my arms out.  He looks up with a beaming smile and comes for a hug. I have no idea if he remembers me or not. It doesn't seem to matter. Every time he sees me it's like I'm exactly the person he's been waiting all day to see.

The three people I teach fifth grade with have become friends, and we've become one of the most functional teams I've ever worked on. So different in so many ways, we share a fierce and stubborn belief that every child deserves our belief in their potential. We love each other's kids. We laugh. We celebrate each other's successes. 

Not all was smooth. In the two years I was gone, I became fodder for baseball field gossip, started by a former teammate. My principals, meeting me for the first time, believed the gossip, or at least enough of it to color how they saw me. For the first time in my career, in a year when my purpose was to be as unnoticed as possible, I was disciplined. The weird thing is that the focus was on an activity that former principals have praised me for. The focus was not on the thing that I've always felt perhaps I might deserve to be disciplined for. 

As the year wound down and I was pretty sure I was still missing the point, I began looking even more closely for the answer. I'd begun to think there was no answer when, on the last day of school, it was just there. Clear. Unmistakable. Simple.

In past years I've grieved the ending of the family I had spent the last nine months creating. The last weeks of school were filled with bittersweet energy as I reluctantly released my kids into the summer and the rest of their lives. I cried often and walked around tender, vulnerable, wounded. At some level I knew I had loved them and taught them the best I could, but I also knew how hard I'd had to work to love some of them, and how I'd not been completely successful in that endeavor. Somehow the raw grief of June was more about that loss, my inability to love well, than the loss of my students, but I didn't see that until just now. 

This year there was none of that grinding sadness. As my kids and I reflected back on the year and worked closure together, all I felt was love and satisfaction. Love for every single child in my room: the girls who never stepped out of line, the drama girls, the sad angry stony girls; the boys who could not sit still, the competitive boys who needed to win more than they needed to care, the funny smart endearing boys.

When asked what they liked about the year, the kids said the usual things: our play, the game day, outdoor school. But they also said they really liked how everyone in the room was an important part of a team and how we all worked together. It was in that moment I knew I'd succeeded. Not just with the kids but in overcoming that part of myself that could not love them easily and without reservation. I knew without doubt that my principals and the gossips were wrong about me. I knew that a heart so determined to find a way to love freely could not possibly beat in the person they thought they knew.

I don't know the direct cause and effect for my healing. All I know is it's real. I'm deeply grateful that finally I can look back on a year and know no matter what else happened, twenty-five kids were taught and loved and cherished from a soft and open heart. We've been warned—repeatedly—that the class coming up is the most challenging group of kids to come along in years. I met them on the last day and began to fall in love as they sat in my room in a circle with curious faces and wiggly bodies and multitudes of questions.

This year did not come without cost. I lost sight of my writer self. My body did not respond well to the concrete floors, the long days, the fatigue. I spent weeks in fear and shame as I struggled to understand how my view of myself could be so different from that of my supervisors.

I prayed. I stayed. I felt it all.

And now on the other side I feel a freedom I haven't known since my own tenth year. My defenses against shame are stronger than ever. My body is healing. My story is waiting to be told still. Only now the telling will come from a light and spacious place cleared of shadows, cobwebs, and ancient dust. 

Thank you to all of you who read my story and offer such wonderful words of encouragement. I love you in the same way I've learned to love my kids. For a while my blog is going to go a different direction. Walt and I leave for Belize tomorrow! I'm hoping to blog the whole two-week adventure as much as possible. I'm not sure how much internet access I'll have, but one way or the other, I'll be journaling our time there. Mostly for our own memories, but also to share this trip of a lifetime with all of you. I hope you'll come along for the ride. 


Mark Lyons said...

If you ever wonder why you had to go back to the classroom and put your dream on hold , come back to this post. Without question I believe you needed this year for God to continue to bring healing...and to give you a clear picture of the value that you have. This might be my favorite post that you've done.

I love you Sis


DJan said...

Every post you write impacts me, many in different ways than this one did, but boy did I hear you with this one. You have every right to be proud of your accomplishments this year. I sure wish I could have been one of your students. I would be enriched by your touch, just as the little girl who follows you around is. Blessings to you, and thank you again.

Deb Colarossi said...

I don't even know what to say actually.
I can't even begin to imagine how blessed those children are because of you...
Enjoy your trip.
Enjoy Enjoy Enjoy.

Barb said...

Deb, Your post brings memories to my mind. I often wonder what has become of this student or if that one survived and thrived. The children are a special gift - though often both burden and challenge as well as delight. However, the politics and bureauracracy in education are often so defeating that it's no wonder teachers burn out and leave. Glad you are now off on an adventure! Have fun!

Amber said...

"...we share a fierce and stubborn belief that every child deserves our belief in their potential."

I hope you know how much your heart matters to your kids. All these years later, the ones who saw me are the ones I still remember. The ones who cared, are the ones I still give thanks for. As your kids will for you-- no matter what anyone says.
For all the little ones under the desks, I speak.
Be safe on your trip, my dear.

:) oxox

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

This is a fabulous post. I am inspired by your open-hearted approach to teaching, by the healing you found, and by your powerful way of telling your own story. Have a wonderful trip to Belize!

yaya said...

This blog post should be required reading for every teacher, new or old. I think your students have been blessed to have a teacher like you. I wish I had had one like you when I was young. Enjoy this wonderful trip. I will be waiting to see the pics of a place I would love to visit one day. Enjoy your vacation!

Teresa Coltrin@Journaling Woman said...

Great post. Have fun!

Retired English Teacher said...

Deb, you have reawakened in me so much about my experience as a teacher. I miss those kids so much. I miss the love that can grow in a classroom. I miss the community that a teacher builds with those who come in to her life and classroom. I miss the smiles, the hugs, the trusting nature of so many students who share their stories, their hurts, and their fears. I miss seeing children grow and learn.

I do not miss the politics and nastiness that happens in every school. I hate the petty drama and unfair gossip. I don't miss the jealousy and rumor mills. I don't miss any of that. I am just sorry you had to confront these unnecessary, unprofessional attacks. It happens. It has happened to me too.

I don't think I could handle the physical demands of the classroom anymore. I'm sure I could not. Few understand how draining teaching can be emotionally, physically, and mentally.

Enjoy your trip. I am so excited for you. You deserve it. You have earned it.

Dee said...

Dear Deb, I second what "YaYa" said. This short posting of yours needs to be required reading for all of those who wish to enter a classroom and the world of teaching. It so inspired me that I wonder why I'm not still teaching! Thank you. Peace.

Heidrun Khokhar said...

How well you have described the journey with you pupils and the agony of peers who just don't get it. But to make a difference to the younger ones has more value than that of impressing the peers for they are adults with somewhat childish behaviour. you had chosen well to side with the 5th graders and get them to feel worthwhile. Now they have learned to respect you and pay you back! I believe teachers can make a huge difference. Thanks for being one of those types who really love what they do.

Sandi said...

Oh Deb, what a fabulous post! I don't know how I missed it, perhaps in our own frenzy to get out of Dodge er Vancouver!

You nailed exactly why we stay in the classroom; it's the 180 day family that is created, nurtured and loved. When I was thinking about what I would say at promotion, it ended up being about how companionable this year's class was, despite the many personalities. I loved how much they helped each other, cared about each other. I loved them. Already I miss them.

So glad this was a glorious year, I know it didn't start that way. I also knew, if anyone could turn it around, it would be you!

Love you and hope your internet thrives in Belize!

Wanda said...

I love Belize! Have a wonderful time. And you...well, just...love.

Midlife Jobhunter said...

Oh, Deb. You may think your writer self has suffered this past year, but how rich what you share of yourself. Not to say you didn't before, but, this, so beautiful. I know how difficult it has been - well maybe not exactly - but I do think that your going back to school this year served more purpose than you know. Gave you a focus while your heart healed. A place to belong where you couldn't quite figure where to fit the rest of the time.

Am I talking through my hat? Probably. I don't quite know how to express it.

Anyway, I was just looking at Belize the other day. Behind in reading your blog so will catch up with you tonight. Have a grand time.