Here are the most calamitous events of my career:
• I broke my wrist one day when I fell from the ceiling (I was hanging a mobile and stepped into air).
• A student driver tried to pass me on a county road when I was making a left turn (My car was totaled, but neither of us was hurt).
• A student who rushed to the front of the class to ask to use the bathroom threw up on me before she could get the words out (The dress washed).
• Two winters ago, a student crunched my car (a different one) while it was parked in the school lot (Actually, he took out two cars when his truck spun on ice).
But until the other day, I’d never been flattened.
I have a tendency to dart, and I darted out of my classroom at the same time a boy exited the room next door. His head was down; he was reading a note. We collided, and there I was, flat on my back like an overturned bug. The boy was stricken; I was certainly surprised.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, “but you can help me up.”
I was restored to dignity and “over it” within a few minutes. It took a little longer for the boy. After all, he’d just leveled a teacher, and an—uh—older one at that.
Maybe teachers should get hazard pay.
Here are some other dangers I’ve exposed myself to in my long life in an American classroom.
Twain and Faulkner and E. B. White and Harper Lee and Charles Dickens and Homer and George Orwell and many, many more literary luminaries: I have the time to reread their work every single year—to admire anew a turn of phrase, to marvel once more at an apt comparison, to suck in my breath at the sheer beauty of their prose. It was nothing short of privilege to open To Kill a Mockingbird this year (for the thirty-first time) and read aloud to my class, “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” In November, I went to London with Pip, and in February, I followed Odysseus around the world. Come spring, it was time to visit Manor Farm again and watch the pigs turn into Mr. Jones. I wonder, now that I will be out of the classroom, if I ever again will read, “Sing in me, O muse…” I hope I will make time to do this, for these stories and the people in them are a huge part of me. I know whole chapters nearly by heart. I’ve kept company with my favorite writers all day long for many years, and now I’m spoiled for bestseller fiction. I can’t stand TV. That makes me a poor conversationalist and puts me out of touch with popular culture.
Here’s another danger I have faced: No one tells me how to structure those fifty minutes between the bells. No one tells me how to teach or how to manage my classroom. I decide from a range of choices what we will read and when we will read it. I decide how I will make the stories come alive or what I will to do to help the students improve their writing. I set the goals and I craft the lessons. I make the connections from book to book, and I design the projects, the writing assignments, the presentations. I make up the tests. My creativity as a teacher is limited only by my imagination and my stamina. Even when resources are in short supply, I usually can find ways to finance what I want to do. Granted, there are standards and a local curriculum that I am obliged to follow, but how can I quibble with those? The standards provide guidance, and I helped to write the curriculum. Such independence is exhilarating—but it also poses a risk. Since I decide just about everything that happens in my room, what happens if I fail? What if I become a bug on her back, flailing, limbs in the air?
I’m in constant danger, too, of my heart being broken. It’s love, of course, that does that, and love is the only way to describe my feelings for the students I am with each year, sometimes for longer than a year. These are kids I have seen when they are happy, seen when they are down, seen when they are taxed to their limit, and seen at play. We have developed a relationship, each one of them and I, based on shared experience and my knowledge of what they often reveal when we read those books together. I am privy to their ideas when they raise their hands to speak. I read their thoughts in the essays they write for me. It’s a lopsided relationship, of course. More like parent-child than friend-to-friend. I nag them, cajole them, and tell them what to do. Sometimes they make poor decisions, let me down, act badly. Sometimes I’d like to throttle them. Sometimes terrible things happen in their lives, and then my heart aches for them. My attachment to the kids I teach sounds odd to people who haven’t taught. But years later, when I see my students all grown up, when I encounter them in a store or at a theater or meet them on the street, I discover that they feel attached to me, too. Sometimes, even years later, they come back to say thank you: for pushing them, for demanding they do their best, for putting up with their resistance, for caring about them, for teaching them something.
Dangerous stuff, this other: Privilege. Independence. Joy. They are intoxicating. But they come with risk attached: Isolation. Failure. Hurt.
In the end, since I gave my heart to teaching, I have spent a good deal of my life in a box—inside the four walls of a classroom. But I have traveled far in a world I created myself, a world peopled by the most amazing characters—fictional and real—whose lives have enriched, beyond measure, my own.
There ought to be a police barrier—a yellow ribbon—around the perimeter of every school: Danger Zone.
I’ve never been sorry I crossed that line. Even when I’ve been flattened.