Sunday, September 2, 2012
During the planning of our trip to Belize we researched thoroughly the land of our coming adventure. We read books, went online, talked to people who had traveled there before us. Over the course of that learning, I formed very distinct and detailed mental pictures of what I expected to find on arrival: Large flocks of bright-billed toucans everywhere. Time in the jungle canopy (during our zip-lining day) to savor the mysteries of life above-ground. Our cabana on the beach a perfect romantic tropical retreat.
Those things, and many others, did not even come close to my imagined pictures. Fortunately the delights and wonders that surprised me, far exceeded anything I might have anticipated. So Belize was not quite what I expected in either direction, as seems to be the case for just about everything in life.
We're given information about a new thing. We form pictures of the new thing based on that information and our previous life experiences. The more information we have, and the broader our previous experiences, the more accurate our pictures often are. However, for me at least, the reality is always different than the anticipation. A reality for which I find myself more grateful with each passing year.
For most of last year, as I was enjoying a particularly cohesive and delightful group of fifth graders, I was told by both current and previous teachers to enjoy them, because the next group coming up was not going to be that way at all. Stories were told about a class taking the sharp edges out of all the hand-held pencil sharpeners in the room. It seemed that half the boys in the class were severely ADHD, and unmedicated. I was told once in the spring that I would need to "wear my helmet" with the new group of kids. They were described as needy, busy, exhausting, low (academic), unparented, immature, lacking leadership skills, poor writers, non readers. There were exceptions, of course, but those kids were seriously outnumbered.
My teammates and I were determined to love these kids. The four of us believe strongly in the fresh start each year offers, and we knew this class deserved the same clean slate being offered to every other group of kids. We knew they needed it more than many. But in spite of our doggedly optimistic conversations about this coming year, I was worried about my ability to provide the unconditional love and acceptance that were my only chance of reaching this class.
The exact kinds of kids I was receiving warnings about were often the ones I've had the hardest time loving, and working with, in the past. I knew I was sunk if I was going to rely on will-power, or training, or any of the myriad management tricks in my teacher toolkit. So I did something unusual for me. I prayed, and turned the whole thing over. That's not that unusual in itself. The fact that I did it before things got bad—that's unusual.
I didn't sleep well the last night of summer vacation. I never do. Not because I was worried about the kids, but because of the infinite list of last minute details needing attention before I opened the door at 7:50 the next day. I woke the next morning, my twenty-fourth first-day-of-school as a teacher, calm and even eager to meet the day. That sense of calm stayed with me as I set up for the day, as I opened the door to greet my new students, as I introduced twenty-five wide-eyed kids to their fifth grade year.
The first day was perhaps the best first day I've had. It went fast, there were no (seriously, not one) problems, and we had fun. While I'd been prepared for the need for the don't-smile-until-Thanksgiving rule, I found myself smiling often and easily, with no adverse effects. The kids I'd been warned about were the most responsive I've ever experienced to a smile, a hug (these guys are huggers in a big way), a promise of good things to come.
On the second day a boy I'll call Daniel, whom several people had given me warnings about, went out of his way to clean up a mess in the lunch bin—without being asked. When I pointed out his initiative to the class, another boy wanted to know what had happened to Daniel, who that boy was, because last year Daniel was mean and nothing at all like the boy I was acknowledging.
By the end of the third day, the end of our first week, my sense of calm had, if anything, grown. Yes, I was exhausted. My feet hurt. My hip hurt. The pile of correcting on my desk threatened to steal precious weekend time. But none of that mattered. I knew that no matter what I was going to bring to my kids this year, no matter how much love or learning, none of that would be bigger than the gift of the sense of divine calm that seems to be a new default position for me.
I never was entirely clear last year why I had to return to teaching. I'm thinking this is the year that holds that answer. An answer that offers as much abundant grace, and love, for me as it does for my kids.