Time spent teaching is never lost.
I spent an hour in a 9th grade classroom yesterday. The first time in nearly five years.
This was at a public school, Durham School of the Arts downtown. The place where my daughter now spends her days, where my middle son used to spend his. And we’ve lived in Durham for nearly-ever: I’ve driven past that school hundreds of times.
But yesterday was my first time teaching there, and this as a one-time guest. Fifty minutes with a creative writing class. Thirty-one students. Poetry and prose and metaphor packed between the bells.
I’ve taught in public and private schools, many years ago and only five years ago. The schools had different philosophies and perhaps some of them were better formed than others. But yesterday I realized again how much they are the same, whether I’m in a public middle-and-high school in the Pittsburgh suburbs or a shanty school with a corrugated roof in Nairobi’s Korogocho slum: Here the students sit, and here sits or stands the teacher.
And Then What?
It’s the Then What that interests me.
Yesterday it was metaphors and extended ones. It was listening for the metaphor in Cory Fry’s current song Underground and then discovering the weight of the metaphors in a clever poem by Sylvia Plath.
As teacher, one can’t be in a hurry with these things. To rip the thread from the spool is to leave your students abandoned, distracted, unlearned or annoyed. You have to tease it out, to let them talk to you. Good teaching is, I’ve learned, so much less my telling them things and so much more their telling me.
Which was why I loved it yesterday when Aaman said he thought Fry’s underground was a mine, and why I reveled in Lorin’s observation of the “percussive influence” in the song. Why I loved that Emerson declared they could do without songs about love, thank you very much, and that Katherine noticed the nine syllables in Plath’s poem aligned neatly with the nine months of pregnancy.
And when they realized, as a class, that the poet was talking about pregnancy in the first place, we had that sonic boom of revelation that many teachers live for: the metaphoric light bulb, the newborn understanding, the thing I was always after for my students–no matter where I taught–when each one or even one of them says: I See.
I miss teaching.
But yesterday was fifty minutes. It was an island of time. It was a window the students let me climb through, unburdened by a week’s load of lesson plans or papers to grade or the learning modifications that require a lesson’s reconstruction. It was without obligatory phone calls to parents or tardy slips, without concerns because this student isn’t paying attention or asks to leave the room too much. It was without getting up too early or deciding (again) what to wear (the students pay attention to these things: “Mrs. Stevenson, you wore those shoes with that shirt last week.” Good lord).
Yesterday was a song, a poem, a paragraph from Fitzgerald. And then the bell.
I think any scholar of the New Testament is supposed to love Peter the most. Aren’t we supposed to love Peter? What with his foolhardy faith and his big mouth, his walking on water and his, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of life” (John 6:68).
And I love Peter. I do.
But I love John the Baptist the best, I think. He was raised in the church, so to speak. Reared believing, like me. He leaped in his mother’s womb when he heard Mary’s voice, and He knew the Messiah on sight: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14).
And when his disciples grew anxious because people were all going to this Jesus fellow to be baptized, he understood–didn’t he?–where exactly he fit in the scheme of things: “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30).
It’s a good thing to know what one is called to, or not. To know that your time is up, your job is finished, that someone else can absolutely do the job just as well as you can, perhaps (so likely) better.
It was right and good for me to leave teaching when I did. And I miss it still. Which is fine.
The best moment for me with John the Baptist is when he was in prison for speaking the truth. He’d been in there for a long time, and I’m pretty sure he knew–he was no fool; he knew the temperament of the Galilean rulers–this would not end well.
He sent a message to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3).
John. Prophet. Believer. Cousin of Christ. Asking whether Jesus was the Messiah.
John teaches me this: It’s okay to ask. It’s okay–years out, even five of them–to wonder about His work in your life. It’s okay to miss what He’s shut the door on. And it’s okay to be overjoyed in the life you currently have, to see the goodness and the blessing and the labor of it, and to still love the thing you once did. To wait in hope for the next thing, to work hard at the thing you are doing, and to remember with inexpressible sweetness what it was to be with your students–your students–all those days, all those times, before.
It’s okay to ask, says the imprisoned John, as long–always, always–as He is the One you go to with the questions, and then you stay put for the answers, even if He seems quiet for a long time.
He is always good, and He is always true. And the poetry of that right there is enough.
“And Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Matthew 11:4-6