Let me describe where I work to you. Imagine a smallish city not particularly reknown for anything. We have a few immigrants, sure, but mostly we are a mix of various First Nations Canadians, and third or fourth generation Canadians. We have everything we need here, and a few things you might want. Larger centers are nearby and if it’s anonymity you’d like you can have it if you’re willing to drive 90 minutes or so to get it. Natural resources are nearby and if it’s solitude you crave you can get that too within a half hour in the other direction.
I work in a small school. It isn’t the smallest school in the community, but it’s a tenth the size of the largest. The building might be a historical site, I’m not sure. But it’s beautiful in an oldish way – all red brick, like a schoolhouse ought to be, with four imposing sets of stone steps leading up to double doors, two sets on the east and two more on the west. Ginormous pine trees surround what used to be an old tennis court, and around the track there are trees that are nearly ancient, sometimes gnarly. Ravens perch in their tallest branches all winter. One raven seems to particularly enjoy the view from a stone ledge just outside my second story window – he preens his feathers, and watches us with shining eyes when he can, scooping up snow in his deadly beak during winter months. Of course, ravens aren’t around in the summer.
Navigating the interior of the building takes an internal compass for the first while: stairwells appear at nearly every turn, of which there are far too many to be efficient, very Hogwarts-like. Enormous picture windows on the east afford a gorgeous view of the morning sun rising over the silhouette of the city. A similar west-facing window has a window seat where students can often be found texting, or eating yogurt and granola served up by the school’s student-run Breakfast Club. Kids’ art work lines the stairwells and it’s largely respected, but teacher-created bulletin boards in the halls are mostly imperilled by vandal-wannabes. It’s a little eclectic – with water fountains that are closed up due to old pipe issues and flatscreen televisions digitally announcing activity schedules. The gym is always booked; the canteen is always busy; the student lounge furniture is always broken; and the hallways are always buzzing, if not with student-noise, then with the train-like vibrations caused by the antiquated heating systems rumbling through old-carpeted floors.
It’s a warm place. With fewer than 200 kids we 23 staff members (ten teachers, two administrators, and eleven educational assistants/mentors/counsellors/secretary/custodians/librarian) know every kid by name. Heck, between us we practically know their siblings, grandparents, family news and supper menus. We have our share of student drama – kids who are drawn to us because they’ve run out of other options; kids who come because they want the family feel of a small community; kids who need extra support and whose parents worry they’ll be lost in a bigger pond. Our students are good people, mostly, with all the regular struggles that teens face in North America. We run a gamut of teams, clubs, activities, events and supports trying to provide something for every kid who comes to us. We’re a young staff. Well, most of us are. I am 23 years into this profession and am some days just tired. But the majority of the adults in the building are younger than 35 with energy to burn. We like each other. We get along. We think alike, for the most part.
But my point here is what? That I like my job is an understatement. I love what I do. I love what I do, who I do it with, and who I do it for. Let me walk you through just today. It started early: 8:15 staff meeting. We run through a list of announcements, review events: dance coming up, Valentine’s fundraisers happening at the office, tournament taking up the weekend. We share concerns about some students, and happy victories for others. We do an activity considering whether we are or not meeting our mission, or if it’s even an appropriate mission to have at this point. Discussion is pointed, directed, and everyone has a chance to be heard. But the bell rings before I can get my photocopying done and it will just have to wait. Or I’ll access the printers via the wireless network and send a student down to get it, I guess.
In first period two grade twelve boys in the back, buddies from way back, can’t stop talking. These two can never stop talking. They say girls have to get through ten thousand words a day, but these two boys individually could give any chatty a girl a good run for her money. I look up from my Hamlet text to see W., pulling up his pant leg and tantalizing C. with his leg … is he showing off his hirsute calf? Trying to catch his eye with a sexy pose? I have no idea but when he sees me seeing him he cracks a joke about my being jealous of his great gams and the whole class is distracted, grinning, for just a moment. A great moment. And then we’re back to Hamlet and Horatio.
My prep at 10:00 is useless for prepping. I can’t get anything done with the Mentors’ room just across the hall, though coffee is always on there and a visit with someone is always a possibility. Kids are in and out of my room the entire hour with requests for a billion things: Mrs. G., I know I’ve missed the first two weeks of this semester but do you think you can catch me up and give me a chance to try? Mrs. G., I’m trying to get a job to help pay the rent and will you help me write this resume? Mrs. G., you said you’d let me rewrite that exam and can I do it now because I have to babysit after school? Mrs. G., do you know anything about algebra? Mrs. G., I’ve lost my binder – can I get copies of all the notes again? *sigh*
Third period is full of the most immature grade nines I’ve met in a long time. We’ve worked hard with this group of kids, and I think I love them. They make me smile – all hormones and gangly limbs and awkward social skills and rammy opinions and quick shy smiles. Another teacher joins us: she and I have agreed to provide feedback to each other on our instructional strategies and twice a month we visit each other’s classrooms. She takes a desk in the back. We have been working on the same set of explicit reading skills for almost six weeks now – I’ve come at these skills from a dozen directions and I think, knock on wood and cross my fingers, they’re starting to infer on their own!! I could kiss them. I won’t, of course, but I could.
Lunch: I’m on supervision in the computer lab, but I can’t get out of my room. I have a student with a crippling anxiety issue staying behind – she and I have been trying to get past her social fears in order to achieve success, something to celebrate. We’re attempting to use a laptop for her work, but she confides with gestures and whispers that she doesn’t know how to use Word. At all. I assure her we’ll help her with that; we make a deal for what she’ll get done for tomorrow; and when I bump into the school Social Worker in the halls we quickly make arrangments to work technology tutorials into her long term success plan for this student. I haven’t made it to the staff room yet where my lunch needs two minutes in the microwave and another student is standing in front of me impatiently – I’d promised her help with an essay she’s writing on her own for a contest to win $250 if she can come up with reasons why we must convince our friends of their value. I tell her to head on up and I dash off to find something quicker to eat – veggie sticks for me again. On the way up the stairs I run into a tall, narrow 18 year old boy whose 4H speech competitions I was judging the night before. He hadn’t expected to see me in his non-school world and at first he’d grinned, then scowled as he realized his English teacher would be his 4H judge! His finger in my face now as I balance books, veggies and laptop up the stair well, he accuses me of throwing him right off his game – “on purpose!” Grinning we climb the stairs together and I tell him how he totally impressed me with his charisma and personal connection with the audience and has he considered becoming a storyteller within his Metis culture? Getting to the lab a full 25 minutes into the lunch hour I sit with the essay-writer and we work through her very first persuasive essay ever. She’s a natural. And I wolf back a few carrot sticks before the bell rings.
1:00. Poetry! A shy girl – deadly gorgeous! – nails every nuance of the poem. The boy behind her, a friend, was hard pressed to not play with her long hair during class, particularly since I’ve pointed out to him that this is a classroom and not a lounge – body contact on a personal level is not appropriate here. He can’t take his eyes off her hair. Speaking of hair, a boy with an unruly mop and thick glasses scratches his head through the whole lesson, eyebrows scrunched up, evidently puzzled by the very concept of poetry. A high functioning autistic boy had already taken every term he didn’t know, looked it up in the dictionary, written out full explanations for each image and had his hand up ready to serve as academic resource every time discussion stalled. A girl in the back with turquoise hair has a blog of her own where she writes fabulous poetry and lyrics to music – she listened, she took notes, she did not contribute one single thing.
Last class of the day – Psychology and an introduction to Freud’s Psychodynamic Theory. I start with a quotation by Dr. Suess, which puts everyone at ease before I jump into Oedipus Rex, and Id vs Superego. My students are fouled out by the idea that they might have weird archetypes lurking around in their little psyches and the suggestion that they might marry their mothers. Lots of story-telling; questions; jokes (some inappropriate!); scritching pencils. A girl asks to be excused to go to the washroom – the same girl who’s missed the first two weeks of this semester. She leaves her binders, grabs her bag and slips out. Class is interrupted by the principal who has come to distribute permission and information letters about the up-coming ski day at a nearby park just outside of city limits. Bells ring, binders get snapped shut, announcements go unheard beneath the din of students heading out for the day. Looking around I see my two-weeks’-absent girl never did return to pick up her binder, still open on her desk.
And now, at 3:10, what I’ve been waiting for all day: interviews with our WeDay applicants! We have 26 applications – nearly 1/4 of our student population are interested in changing the world, making their communities a better place, righting the wrongs they see around them. My partner really has done the majority of the work preparing students for this – she is a third year teacher: idealistic, energetic, with an activist’s soul. We interview our kids in small groups of four or five. “What made you fill in the application?” “What are you hoping to get out of this?” “How would you define community?” “What ideas can you bring to make a difference in the world?” They are sober. No jokes for once. Intense. Some have answers prepared; some had no ideas these questions were coming. A few were too shy to answer in a group and opted instead to write short responses and submit them the next day.
“I work at *** and parents sometimes just drop their kids off there. There are ten year old girls there who don’t know that they are special.”
“I think I want to change me the most. I want to be inspired. I want to feel that something ….” “That what?” “I don’t know. That something that makes me different than who I am now.”
“I’d like to change this school. Too many kids just go home every night to play video games.”
“I don’t even have a job yet and there are kids who can’t go to school because they have to work all the time. That’s not right.”
“I’d like to organize a concert. I could write a song. We could perform in the *** Park.”
And see? Now I’m crying as I write this. Is that beautiful or what? Kids who see the addictions counsellor and kids who raise their siblings and kids who have dropped out of school multiple times. These are the kids who want to change the world. I love them.
But I’ve held up my ride. It’s 4:45pm. I throw my marking into my bag and dash downstairs, hoping to get to the bathroom for the first time today before running into her. I do (thank God!!) and when I apologize for holding her up, she smiles, and says, “That’s alright.” She was visiting with another teacher across the hall, sharing stories about crazy stuff that happened that day in their math classes.