Recently, during a professional development, my principal described his teaching journey and asked each of us to reflect on our own. His request set me on a path of reflection, causing me to think about the very reasons why I am still, despite my efforts to escape, a teacher.
Last week, a family friend posted pictures on Facebook of the students and staff of Clintonville Elementary school in Bourbon County, Kentucky, where I and my brothers and sisters attended. The picture brought back a flood of memories. A school friend of mine, who now teaches English in Connecticut, privately messaged me, and we shared memories and traded stories about the teachers we had. We remembered how many of them sparked the love of language and learning in both of us. She shared with me that she and Mr. Wagoner, our beloved sixth-grade English teacher, wrote letters to one another every Christmas until he died several years ago. We had such excellent teachers, she wrote.
I suppose Clintonville is where my teaching journey really began.
I started first grade in 1973. Every morning, my bus driver, Mrs. Sutherland, with her Pentecostal beehive, longshoreman’s hands and thick opaque panty hose, swung open the door to Bus 28 and I clambered aboard, disappearing in the warm vinyl green seats. After about ten miles of breaking the sound barrier, our bus tore into Clintonville, a little burg of no more than six or seven houses.
The school was hemmed in by a cemetery, a corner store, and a church. Mrs. Sutherland screeched to a halt, and we fell, like puppies from a crate, onto the wide slab steps in front of the imposing WPA brick edifice.
I loved everything about school, the dark hardwood floors buffed with thick wax, the high wavy glass windows, the cramped, perpetually-flooded basement library. At the door, Mr. Rose, our principal, greeted everyone by name.
“How are you, Miss Farmer?” he’d inquire. I wanted to curtsy.
I loved the smells. Mr. Rose’s minty breath and his Old Spice aftershave. The tomatoes stewing in the cafeteria, the cool intoxicant of mimeograph, the mysterious ecosystem of the dark cloak room. The sound of the flag clanging on the pole out front and the sh-sh-sh of the long broom pushed through the halls by the janitor.
Every day, I would write stories, paint pictures, and read books. At recess, we raced, arms and legs pumping, to the edge of the playground and crawled through the shrubs to the cemetery on the other side to look for dead snakes cut to pieces by the caretaker’s mower. Then our teacher would call us in. We would drink some milk, take a nap and wake up to dust the erasers on the asphalt before Mrs. Sutherland screeched back into the schoolyard in a cloud of dust, singing “He Pilots My Ship” at the top of her lungs, picking us up to take us home.
I never, ever, ever wanted to leave.
On Wednesday, against all my annual protests, I will start my 20th year of teaching. Today, we had professional development, and as part of our community building, my principal shared his teaching journey. He asked us to share our own with someone sitting near us.
My friend Louise and I shared, and when I told her I had always been a reluctant teacher, that I didn’t really know why I went into teaching in the first place, she cocked her head to one side, and said, “Hmm. That’s interesting. Why is that?”
I had never asked myself that question. I had always felt like teaching wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing, but I’d never asked myself why I was so reticent. Perhaps I thought I should be doing something grander, something more lucrative, something more prestigious. But teaching was just what I kept doing.
I kept showing up. I kept teaching kids.
Once, while I was teaching at Morehead State University, one of my students posted a review of me on the website, Rate My Professor. It was a very kind review, and in the end, the student summed up my performance that “…despite herself, [she is] dedicated to all the best that teaching can be.”
I have thought about that assessment many times. Despite myself, I have become a teacher and am dedicated to all the gifts and responsibilities therein. I have left the profession twice, once after my first awful, horrible, very bad first year. I want to track down all those students –one who is now a school superintendent- and apologize personally and profusely for all the educational malpractice I exacted on them. After I quit and swore I would never stand in a public school classroom again, I was, three years later, drawn back. I taught ten years, and then left a second time to become a writer, but I returned again, three years later to my home state and to the classroom.
And here I am. Year 20.
We often change our narrative to support the decisions we have made, perhaps so we can live with them more easily or perhaps because no one wants to hear the story of the teacher who wanted desperately to be rock star, but life happened, and she became a teacher. We’ve all seen Mr. Holland’s Opus.
But my narrative is truly this: What I fell in love with at Clintonville is what I am still in love with – the family of the classroom, the smells and sounds of school with all its hoopla, drama, and flag clanging, the ideas, the nurtured curiosity. At Clintonville, it seemed every new day was filled with strange and interesting things, new stories, new pictures. There I gained confidence in my intellectual abilities. People believed in me. Not just a few teachers, but all of them, and Mr. Rose and the lunch ladies and the bus drivers. They were in my corner.
Maybe that is why I became a teacher. Along the way, I have discovered what those teachers must have known: the joy in watching a student understand a concept that has eluded him, the pride in helping a student find her way toward maturity and independence, the peace in the near silent room where kids are bent over notebooks, writing their lives out. This is how I imagine those teachers must have felt, watching me grow, and how thousands of teachers, some of them for the very first time, will feel this year.
What those teachers at Clintonville did is provided a safe, warm, loving environment to grow and question and read, write, and think. And this is what I do now. It is the best that teaching can be.
And I never, ever, ever want to leave.