I am a mere 14 days away from completing my first year of teaching in South Dallas: in a school submerged in poverty; surrounded by a food desert; drowning in a perception, both imposed by others and often self fulfilling, of defeat and hopelessness; a school full of children struggling, left behind, but full of potential and self worth. This year has been, and I say this with no doubt or hesitation, the most difficult year of my life. In perspective, my life has not been so hard, which is why I thank God for bringing me here. Through this small adversity, I have grown tremendously.
For the first time this year, I woke up with a full tank of energy. 5 AM and I can’t sleep. I am awake because I realized that I have reached solid ground. Like Odysseus lost a sea, I have found my Ithaca. I often said this year that I am underwater. One friend even described his similar experience as drowning at sea, struggling to gasp breath at the surface…and then someone throws you a baby. Not only was I struggling with my own skill, ability and emotional stability, I was struggling with the knowledge that on my shoulders was the responsibility for the education of 150 of my city’s most at-risk youth. I had been thrown a baby, and for a time, we had to hold our breath beneath the waves. I used to cry tears, longing for the day when I would tread water and breath fresh air. With 14 days left, I kiss the solid ground.
Yesterday, I locked my classroom and headed down the stairs to my car, but on my way I was stopped by a student, sitting on the stairs with several other girls. We will call this student M. M needed help on a math project. If you know me, you know that I am not the person to ask about math homework. I teach the miracle of the written expression of human word, not the mystery of numbers and data. But in this case, M had contracted help from the right teacher. Her project involved writing a paper to explain the data she collected. I was able to explain that this was, in essence, an expository writing piece, which we had focused on in my class all year. And the beauty of inter-curricular education took place right there in the stairwell, during a 30 minute impromptu tutoring session.
The other students saw this interaction. J, another of my students and a friend of M’s, then said something to me that pulled me ashore from the sea.
“Mrs. Myers, I feel like you should work at a rich school where everyone cares about their work and respects you. These kids are so disrespectful to you. You’re a really good teacher; you deserve better.”
OK – first of all – OMG did that just happen? Did those words just come out of a student’s mouth? Say more, keep going, stroke my ego and make me feel good. But pause…”You’re a really good teacher; you deserve better.”
I looked into her eyes, every other set of stairwell eyes on me. “But J, do YOU deserve a good teacher?”
The slightest pause for thought. “Yes”
“Then that’s why I’m here.”
The look on her face, the realization that she, in this place, deserves a quality education, that she deserves an equal shot in the world, that she deserves people that care about her and her future – solid ground, hallelujah, solid ground. That is why I am here. That is why I am here. I have asked myself so many times – why am I here? Can I really make a difference?….and THAT is why I am here. THAT is solid ground. Hallelujah, solid ground!
But wait, there is more.
The writing of math data into expository form continues, and the other girls sitting around touch my Tory Burch shoes, asking the brand and price. “Too much.” They ask to look at the wedding ring on my finger. They ask what my husband’s ring looks like. They ask how much it costs. “Too much.” They discuss whether or not I might be cheap (because I do not reveal the cost of my things). They ask if my husband wears his ring everyday. They ask If I ever want to take my ring off. They ask, “even when you see another cute guy?” They ask if I ever get bored in my marriage. I tell them the truth. I tell them that marriage is a choice, a commitment.
My mom once told me that no one is perfect. You have to find someone who has things about them that you love. But they will also have things about them that you dislike. The key is to decide what bad things you can live with and work through, and which ones you can’t. If you can look past a person’s faults, and they can work through yours, and the things you both love about each other outweigh the bad, then you both make a choice – a choice to love each other and a choice to be faithful to each other; a choice to move through life together as best friends and partners. And the result of that choice is sometimes hard and sometimes boring, but in the end, rewarding and beautiful in its comfort and stability. I explain this philosophy to the girls.
“Mrs. Myers, you and your husband seem like you have fun. Do you have fun?”
“Yes, he’s my best friend. We have fun”
Driving home, I reflected on the conversation. I recalled that another instructor at the school had told me that the students had been talking about me in another class. I asked what they said and she asked:
“Do you talk about yourself in class sometimes, like tell them about your weekend or your family?”
That could have been a bad thing, except that I know that I do not cross the line in what I share about my personal life with my students. If I ask them about their weekend, I may tell them about something fun I did. If I am teaching something in class, like empathy, I may tell a story about my mom to illustrate the meaning of the word.
In the car, driving and reflecting, I realized that I had been inadvertently teaching my kids what healthy relationships look like, especially in the case of a marriage. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Lance’s and my marriage is perfect. But, in a world of transiency and instability and insecurity, the kids heard me talk about consistency and stability and security. They heard me talk about the possibility of having a husband that cooks dinner for you, enough dinner that you can take delicious left-overs to work. They heard me talk about taking bike rides on Sundays and visiting family. They heard about a husband I am committed to, and who, from my stories and the food I bring to school, seems to adore me. They listened. I had no idea that talking about myself in little ways would stick with them.
And so…I am kissing dry land and counting down the days until summer! 14 days.