With the fervor of an end-of-the-world survivalist, teachers must enter the classroom prepared for every real and imagined end-of-my-life-as-I-know-it scenario that the teenage mind can concoct. I’ve averted so many life destroying teenage apocalypses that I’m starting to feel like the B- rated version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Only, instead of super strength and witty comebacks, my arsenal consists of free food, school supplies, chocolate and, most importantly, a listening ear.
As a lover of literature and language, I always thought that I had deeply explored the story-world. After traveling to so many imaginary places, I had forgotten about the dark, sinister realities that often go unshared. That is, until I become a high school English teacher and traded Jane Austin and Oscar Wilde for the narratives of my students. Each willing and able to share his or her own personal catastrophe. People always think they are prepared for the end of the world, until pandemonium ensues and they realize too little too late that they planned too much for all of the wrong things. That’s how it is with teaching. I came armed and ready with 20 sticks of glue, but realized it was paper and pencils I needed. Ready to teach, but unprepared for how much I would learn… how much I wish I could unlearn.
Nothing had prepared me for the stories.
I teach in a poor school. It’s located in a middle-of-nowhere farming community. A place where racism runs deep, and members of the community are either haves or have-nots. A conservative counter to my liberal education. The silly fool holding a bag of M&M’s in front of a starving people. I thought I was feeding them, but it turns out the nutritional index of what they were feeding me was much richer.
Most of my students wanted for something – clothes, food, school supplies, stable housing, a family, kindness, counseling, understanding, guidance, a reason to care, love, Band-Aids, books, diversity, knowledge, technology, acceptance, voice.
I failed to provide most of these things.
As I said, I brought all of the wrong supplies to this end-of-the-world party. I had glue, but somehow it failed to hold us all together.
I fought against the apathy of my students; striving to show the cultural ropes that bind us. Striving to give voice to each student’s culture and share the beliefs of the world outside of our one-horse town. I preached open-mindedness and proper use of the comma. I taught with the mindset that I could help each one of my students achieve a better life no matter how low or how high they already were. I taught that books could help cure pain and invoke happiness; a savior in Times New Roman font that could put hope back into those dark abysses of despair that I saw looking back at me as I asked my student to please keep up his or her head (for the fifth time). I pushed onto my students the voices of hundreds of well-meaning writers trying to impart wisdom, knowledge, and feeling.
I missed the point. As educators, policymakers, parents, administrators, and tax-payers all miss the point. The texts that students most need to read and share are the ones that have yet to be written; the ones that the students write themselves.
I discovered, amongst all the noise that my students were far too silent.
As I fought for English and literature and diversity and vocabulary and fairness and critical thinking. My students were fighting greater battles still. As a teacher of English, I learned of their battles. Battles of addiction. Abuse. Apathy. Homelessness. Bullying. Homosexuality. Loneliness. Self-Hatred. Emptiness. Racism. Sickness. Hopelessness. Hunger. Obesity. Silence. Achievement. Heartbreak. Sexism. Self-harm. Suicide. Love. Hate. Lust. Listlessness. Failed expectations. Inadequacy. Pregnancy. Abortion. Disability. Death.
All the great themes, all the potent lessons, and all the compelling emotions — all of my students tap into these through their own life narratives.
When I go to work, I am not fighting a war. I am not preparing for the end of the world. The end of my students’ worlds happens on a daily basis. The battle is already over. Instead, I prepare for the stories of disaster. And, when I can, I prepare to clean up the damage. As a teacher, I’ve failed to cure all of the wrongs my students encounter. But, by giving students a voice they learn to cure themselves. By sharing our stories, we prepare to rebuild. For we must keep on building, no matter how many times we fall.
Allow students to share their stories; through them they create a compelling mosaic. Things fall apart, but our power lies in what we do with the pieces after they break.