Life, Teaching and Everything in Between
In 1997, when Dustin Hoffman received the Golden Globe for lifetime achievement, he told a story of Igor Stravinski, the great composer, being interviewed.
“So Mr. Stravinski, what is the greatest moment for you? Is it when you finally write the symphony?”
And he says, “No, no, no.”
“Is it when you’ve heard it played the first time by a symphony?”
And he says, “No, no, no.”
“What about opening night when they premier it and herald it as being one of the greatest works of the 20th century?”
And he says, No, no no.”
“So what IS the greatest moment for you?”
“I’m sitting there at the piano for hours, I’m trying to find a note. I can’t find the note and I’m going ‘bum, bum’….’bum, bum … ‘bum, bum’ for three hours. Finally after 3 hours I FIND the note! That’s the moment. There is nothing like it. That’s everything”
I’ve heard this story told before many times, with different details, but the message stays the same. Any art form—writing and, yes, teaching—requires a lot of time, work and frustration if we want to find those sacred moments that are more breathtaking than a sliver moon on a quiet summer night.
Not every teacher thinks this way—I promise. I know many teachers who speak of the classroom as a place where every second of the day is magic. They bemoan the fact that there are only six hours in a school day and cry when discussing their students, how much they love them, as if they are parents to 150 children. You wouldn’t think there would be so many of them, but they’ve seeped into school lounges across the country–wearing “We’re-all-God’s Children” t-shirts. They truly love all their students.
Here’s my truth, and I can only speak for myself and my subject matter—teaching English is tough, frustrating, exhausting, a beast that will suck your soul dry, along with being an enlightening peek into heaven more powerful than any church—synonymous with finding a Yogi on a mountain who offers you soul cleansing and redemption.
So I wait for these holy moments, while I bum, bum, bum my days along.
Here’s how it looks:
Days bum, bum, buming
I arrive at school by 6:30. It’s when my school opens, so I’m shooting for at least an hour and a half before the bell to get some work done. Then the race begins to see what I can get done.
Many days all I have time for is making copies, as the machine suddenly starts jamming in places I can’t even find and somehow the work of locating that one tattered piece of paper will take up the rest of my morning. The copy machine loves to wait till two minutes before the bell to spit out the last copy.
With a minute before the bell, I run to my room to find In front of my door 36 students who feel vindicated, knowing that I’m the hypocrite who rolls his eyes and marks them tardy.
Then there are days when I’m just not prepared, in terms of teaching, and I use that hour and a half to try and piece together a lesson. Never a good idea. For some reason I can have the same amount of time at night, but the lesson plan never comes together in the given time before school. The most frustrating part of this is I did plan, on Sunday night, for the complete week, but by the end of Monday I realize I need to revise and rethink where I’m going. Even more frustrating is that between grading papers, planning for three different classes—including reading novels for advanced placement courses I teach, I can never adequately keep up.
Still, at 6:30 in the morning I can pull something together if there are no intruders. Most importantly, I have to believe that something good, possibly great can come from all of this.
Sometimes these hopes are dashed as a student arrives way too early for school, even an hour before. They knock on the door and I wonder, ‘Can they see me?’ ‘Should I hide under a desk until they walk away?’ I am not joking; these are my actual thoughts.
No stopping these early risers. If I don’t open the door, they will knock for the next hour, taking five minute breaks between. They ask if they can hang out in my room. I let them in. Next thing I know I have a bored kid asking me for an hour: “So what’s up?”
The bell rings and I pray for that note.
Days I find that one note
The spectacular days where I open the gates of gratitude, existing in a world of interconnected human beings. The days when I hit Stravinsky’s note.
My God, the beauty of moments.
I arrive at school at 6:30. I walk by the janitor who tells me “Have a good day and take care of yourself, because we need you here strong for our kids.”
I walk into my classroom and turn on a desk lamp. No one is knocking at the door. There is time to sweep the floor, tidy up and write down notes to myself. Perhaps I can even grade a bit and think about what I want out of today’s lesson, what kind of teacher I want to be and what I want my students to learn.
A student arrives early to apologize for his behavior the previous day and wants to discuss what is really going on in his personal life that prompted the class disruption. He asks for my help—I am grateful for these holy moments.
Maybe I walk over to the bathroom. Campus is still mostly empty. There’s hope that permeates through the hallway, into the lockers and breathes into the seats of my students, hope that not only will students be successful, but that as human beings, myself included, we will discover new ways of viewing the world.
It’s in these moments that I am allowed to breathe and believe that not only will the students live up to their potential, but I will also find a way to rise to my own potential, and converge with them on a field of not only critical thinking, standards, learning and connecting to literature, but also that as people we are so in sync that we find truths, challenge beliefs, question dogma and empathize with the human condition.
Or The Bum bumming continues
Behavior problems arise. Sometimes it’s the little things — the one student sleeping on his desk, or the student sneaking a text on his phone. One incident, at 8 in the morning, and the stucco walls begin to close in. Then it gets a little tighter as a few kids arrive late. A female student is crying because her boyfriend dumped her. I usually give this student a break and let her stand in front of my door. Next thing I know her friends are concerned about her out there by herself, which leads to three friends asking to go outside to console her.
Let’s not forget announcements at the absolute worst possible moment or the messenger handing me a note that says that half of my class must report to the office immediately.
The day moves along with the strange phenomenon of time—Students stream in and out of my room at a relentless pace, leaving me spent as I walk to my desk at 3:15. After school there may be a meeting. If not, most days I have good intentions, but it seems by the time I have a conversation with a student staying late or a parent conference that turns into a cry fest, I’m lucky if I can grade a few papers, pick up around the room and catch up on paperwork.
The rise of the beautiful note
On this type of day, serendipitous magic makes an appearance:
My class will have an intense talk about Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll” poem that spills out to the hallway.
A student reads a poem they’ve written to the class, and seconds after the poem is finished no one speaks, as we all realize that we’ve witnessed something so spectacular and we’re still trying to come to terms with it.
A tense moment in class, a student upsetting the room, upsetting me and realizing that this moment had to happen because real growth is about to take place—for the student, as well as me.
A lesson goes so well that students learned more than I expected and a student walking out will say, “I wish everyday could be like this.”
A student who is failing all her classes on this day is prepared and eloquently, word for word, recites Maya Angelou’s “Ain’t I a woman,” in class, without the poem in front of her.
The bell rings, but no one moves because we are in the middle of a seminar and many feel like they haven’t fully explored the ‘essential question’.
I am caught up with most of my work, at least the biggest obligations and during lunch I have time to just sit with students and talk with them.
Bum, bumming my way home
I leave at 4:30. At 5:30 I am home, greeted by a loving family. I enjoy my children, listening to them, maybe playing a game, helping with homework, hoping to build bonds, helping them grown up to be responsible young men and women.
My kids go to sleep at nine. For the next hour I’m grading papers, planning for the next day and passed out by ten.
The Note Turns Into a Symphony
I come home, as always, my children meet me at the door with huge hugs, but this is an every-once-in-a-while night where I have the energy to take them out to dinner at IKEA and give my wife a break. Over food I hear about their day and their dreams. We laugh. After dinner we walk over to Barnes and Noble, read books together and go home ready to hit the sack.
I turn out the lights and fall asleep as the note lulls me out to sea and the unexplainable beauty of teaching, of life. I know hitting this note won’t happen every day, but it will happen. I have to remind myself: ‘just keep bum, bum, bumming along, searching for the beauty of moments.’