I read the first drafts of the letters my students wrote last week. A teacher now for sixteen years, technically sixteen and a half. I began in the winter and not the fall. After I read every one of them I smiled. Content. I was a teacher. It mattered. And I did not buckle under the weight of what it means to be a teacher. Perhaps it was part of some great design, one I’m not privy to. Until now, as I sifted through more than their drafts, but my own years of teaching. A timeline of events, big and small, significant. Markers to post the distance between the years I have taught.
In June my fifth graders work on a personal letter as their last writing assignment before they leave to middle school. They can write to a former teacher, current teacher, either classroom or out of classroom. Guidance counselors, assistant principals, principal, as well as office or lunch room staff. The person they choose to write to should be someone who has meant a lot to them throughout the years at the school. Someone that’s made an impact in their lives.
And while I taught the structure and conventions of how to write a letter, the way you felt when you wrote it, well that matters most. Instructed my ten and eleven year olds to put in their letter above anything– emotion. This letter, a gift. Leave a dent I told them, in shape of your heart.
I told them to not write to me. That I wouldn’t catch feelings in any way if they wrote to another teacher or staff member. Please write to your former teachers I said, listed their names. But. Some wrote to me. And I caught feelings indeed.
These are some of the sentences that struck me as I read their drafts. Their handwriting large or small, uneven or even, messy or neat, but all pierced the paper. And in turn my heart.
I want to thank you for inspiring me to be a writer too. You are my role model. You are Latina like me, and I never had a Spanish teacher before. I love that you speak Spanish to us even to your students that don’t understand. You work hard and expect us to do the same. No one has catch phrases like you. Ms. Meza you are strict, but when you are being tough I know it’s for my own good because you care. You make it fun to learn, maybe because you are funny or smart, could it be because you are both? You love all of us. I will never forget our conversation in the library. I hope you don’t.
I can’t front. Those words made and make me feel a whole mess of things. But, what echoes most, I don’t deserve them. I’m not that good of a teacher. I could do more. I should do so much more. I never set off to be a teacher. Teaching chose me. I did not choose it. And because of this I have felt like a fraud. Sixteen years, sixteen and a half to be exact, I have felt this. Until this past year. Where my classroom and student became the teacher. The one that held the lessons. Maybe it always was. But it took me the teacher, to write it and read it, and only then could I recognize it.
My classroom and students have appeared in a handful of my essays. The act of writing my classroom anecdotes and re reading them back to myself was when it dawned on me. That writing and teaching could exist in my heart without fear of loving one more than the other. Afraid to betray writing I told myself that teaching was a mere stop, as I waited for another train. Sixteen years I have waited for that train. I waited married, then with my daughter at my side too, and later my son. But always in that state of wait. So, I taught with my heart on pause. I was wrong. Teaching and writing, blend and swirl around each other, like the hues of a sunset. But there is more than my fear of infidelity against writing. There is always more.
I don’t think you could teach without heartbreak. And if your heart is soft to the touch you will live in perpetual heartache. It was how I taught at the very beginning. But that changed after a while. I’ve never known how to deal with pain. Hid it, ignored it, numbed it, but never dealt with it. I do not like pain. Neither emotional or physical. I’m the first to run for Advil, menthol for my achy ankles, and airborne for any sign of a cold. But, teachers teach a classroom of students. Humans. So, it’s inevitable, you catch feelings.
Last summer on the last day of school I made a beeline to my friend, Zoraida’s apartment. My daughter waited for me there, after a long day in a summer program for high school readiness. My son in tow with me. He spent the last day of school in my classroom. He sat among my students, lifted his head a few times, his eyes locked with mine. The novelty of coming to school with me rested across his smile.
Exhausted by a tough year and the marathon madness of June. I flung myself on her Lazy Boy. I closed my eyes. “This was one of the hardest year,” I said. It’s what I said about every year, but this time I meant it.
“Think about the difference you made in your students lives,” my friend said.
And I thought of all the times I placed my hand over my heart. Fearful it would fall from chest like a slippery dish and shatter. I pressed the back of my head back against the recliner as far as I could possibly go. I wondered if I could mute the memories and make them go away.
“Do you know what they tell us as teachers to not smile, at least not to December. And for a long time I believed that,” I closed my eyes. “Do you know the third time I was a sub ever was when I ditched the smile?” I shook my head, the bullshit of it all. “And the kids paid attention and listened and I got through the lesson plans.” I thought about how scared I was before that class of third graders. And how badass I felt when they listened. “So, for the longest that is what I did. I didn’t smile.”
“Do you know at the Academy they have us practice how we stand? You gotta stand with one leg pivoted to the side. Your strongest,” Zoraida’s said.
I opened my eyes and looked up. My friend, now a retired cop, two years since she gave in her shield. But forever in cop mode, her eyes always fixed, as if on a perpetual stake out. Don’t think you can do a job for that long and it not change you. Not in a molecular level, but deeper in a way, a cast on your soul. Shaped in a cop for her, and a teacher for me. “Really?”
“Gotta protect your weapon,” she stood up and modeled the stance.
Maybe her guarded stance was my lack of smile those first few years as a teacher. But what did I protect? My bright chart markers? My extra sticky post its? Or myself?
I thought of my first summer school class I taught. The kids already held over once or twice, some meant for sixth or seventh grade, but would enter fifth grade, maybe. But only if they passed. I rooted for them to pass, but more than just to the next grade. I wanted them to learn. So, I taught my ass off, my weapon of choice, bribery in the form of snacks. I brought iced cold lemonade in one of those cooler jugs, made it from the powdered mix at home. I promised them the lemonade along with cheese doodles and salt and vinegar chips only after their work was done. Afterwards I watched them laugh and take long sips of lemonade from cheap plastic cups and eat chips. Bounty towels, served as dishes. They walked around and mingled like adults in a cocktail hour, except they were in n public school classroom with a brand new teacher, still years from her certification and masters. No arsenal of great teaching skills. It was just me.
“Ms. Meza, how come you never have chips with us?” Roberta asked me. (Name changed). She wore tight ripped jeans, Air Jordans on her feet, second and even third hole pierced along her ear, and her natural dark hair dyed a brassy orange. The boys loved to watch her figure sashay across the classroom, and she knew it. She was sweet. Math her nemesis.
On the first day of summer school she told the class that she didn’t mind reading if it was a juicy book. The boys snickered and the rest of the girls looked her way with gaped mouths.
“I rather watch you guys eat them,” I smiled at Roberta. It was true I loved to see them worry free and snack with abandon. Happy they were too young to know so much was stacked against them. When they looked away, I blinked fast, to keep the tears from the corner of my eyes.
Most nights my first year of teaching I laid on my bed, hands rested on my stomach in prayer. I would let the sadness wash over me from that day of teaching and could hear the echo of my Mami telling me, “no lo tomes a pecho”. And I willed my heart not to feel.
“It’s not easy our jobs,” my friend interrupted my thoughts. “I know chica…”
“I use to not be so tough you know…” I took a long breath, which came out all shaky. “I use to care so much. Get chest pains all around my heart. It would hurt.” I closed my eyes just as they clouded with tears. “There was this boy. He was in my first class ever. They were not mine for a full year. I got them early April, but they were my first real class you know.” I waited.
“I’m listening,” she said.
“We stayed late for after school one day, and he never got picked up. I waited with him by the main office and still nothing. The sun was starting to set and I got a hold of his mom. She was angry and seemed bothered.” I thought back to how she slammed the phone on me. Sadness wove through my heart, and I waited for it to recede. And when it didn’t, well I hunched my shoulders and strapped on rage over my shoulders and back. My backpack of rage. “Told me to tell him he could walk home. I couldn’t believe it. It was a few blocks and two big avenues down. I offered to walk home with him when I gave him the message.”
“Dito,” my friend said, her voice gripped by sadness.
“So, I walked him. We didn’t even talk much the whole time. There was even an ice cream truck parked on one of the blocks. Got him a cone with sprinkles. I walked into his building with him. While we waited for him to be buzzed in I hugged him. Damn even kissed the top of his little dirty head.”
I ended my story there. If I spoke further I was afraid I’d start to cry. And at the time I told myself there was no time for that. But it wasn’t true. I had built a dam to force my emotions back, but overtime the levees weakened. And I have since cried. Cried for my students. The ones that have been dealt a hard hand in life. That are labeled discipline problems and who teachers pray they don’t get. And then the ones that are quiet and withdrawn, who carry a burden of pain over their shoulders, but go unnoticed.
And that’s me. That’s who I am. I take todo a pecho because I have always felt everything ten folds. Nothing ever rolls off my back. It gets nestled there. And my writing is my attempt to unearth it, to bring it to light.
It was at a family friend’s baby shower that I was told that while I was in-between jobs to consider teaching. I nodded my head as if I was suggested a new entrée on a menu to try. Her words burrowed in mind with each nod. And while I waited to land a job in publishing and write my epic novel I could substitute teach. I would be like Ms. Honey in Matilda. Cool. And I could be that young and make a difference teacher, like in Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase. https://Up_the_Down_Staircase.
And while I have made a difference for some students. It’s only some. I’m haunted, by those that I have not reached. This has come at a price, teaching. I’d be a liar if I said it hadn’t. I’m different from when I began to teach at twenty-three. And for the longest time I complied a list of negatives about being a teacher, and what it had cost me. But I will not write that list, everyone has encountered teachers before. It’s true what they say about us teachers, we are love to rage against the machine, complain. We are great cheerleaders. But not our own. We can close a bar down the Friday before a break. All true.
But there is more. There always is.
If I could tell my twenty-three year old self one thing. It would be this: Hang in there! I know it’s bone tiring. And yes it hurts. Your heart fuck’n hurts. But one day it will all make sense. And you know you have arrived as a teacher when you start to see life as the classroom. You are after all a student.