Of Teachers and Why We Love Them, My Favorite One, and Two Birthdays

IMG_20170828_084503I think we’ve seen the last of them for this year: the first-day-of-school photos that spill down our social media screens. Darling children in their new clothes and unscuffed shoes, grinning for the camera and holding their signs: Amelia, second grade. Dylan, fourth. And the less-than-darling, I’m-too-old-for-this children, holding signs or not, wearing I-couldn’t-care clothes and looking at the camera slit-eyed, or wearing cutting-edge clothes and grinning, arm akimbo.

Every student in this country has started back to school by now. The other day, a boy in my daughter’s math class announced that, two full weeks in, they had completed exactly 5.5% of the school year.

This was not excellent news to Emma. She wasn’t sure that 5.5% was worth registering.

Nearly three weeks ago now, I visited her school with her at student orientation. With five minutes to pass between classes–threading our way in and out of buildings, up and down stairs–we sat in each of her classrooms for ten. Her teachers met us at their doors, encouraged us to take copies of the neatly stacked hand-outs. And in what must have felt to them like a hot second, they explained the scope and sequence of their courses, their methods of teaching and evaluation, and briefly listed (if we would be so kind) those extras we could provide that might be handy over the course of the upcoming year: whiteboard markers, boxes of tissues, hand sanitizer.

None of them knew that I have been a teacher, but like every parent in that room, I’m sure, I was interested in how my child would do in that class. I wondered if the methods employed would work for her unique mind, her way of perceiving the world. And, as a teacher, I had that other perspective: knowing what it feels like to greet student and parent alike for the first time. Knowing that I would be navigating relationships with both, listening carefully to both. Seeking to know each student insofar as he would allow it, as was appropriate. Seeking to like each one. Knowing that my standards were high and earnestly believing that my students could and would get there, that it was my job to give them everything they needed to reach those goals.

Emma’s 5.5% has been well worth her time already. I hear it in the way she talks about her classes: the experiments, the discussions. On the way to school this morning, she was telling me about parent functions in math; last night before bed she was discussing Malcolm Gladwell and rhetorical analysis. She likes each of her classes; she likes her teachers very much.

***

Once, years ago, I saw a comment about teachers on Facebook that saddened me. It was made by a mother of grown children, each of whom had been educated through college and perhaps beyond. She was complaining about teachers asking for pay raises. Why did they need to ask for more, she wondered aloud on social media. They only work nine months a year. They get the entire summer off.

I didn’t reply, but if I had, I might have said something about the work a teacher does around the edges of her day, those hours when she’s not required to be in her classroom. I spent hours and hours at planning and grading when I was a teacher. After an eight-hour day at school, I easily and often put in two to four additional hours of work at home, especially in my earliest years of teaching.

Listening to my daughter’s teachers talk about the upcoming school year, I had a difficult time assessing the value of their expertise. This one has a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a Master’s in teaching. She will conduct her students in performing experiments that will help them draw conclusions about acids and bases, and she will–at the same time–ensure that none of them blows himself up, or his neighbor, or school property.

When you are a teacher– I wanted to say to this Facebook remark– you don’t work with your colleagues. You almost never see them. You work instead with people who are vastly younger than yourself in age and experience, vulnerable people, people who are not in charge of their own lives and so sometimes (often?) are victims of poverty or anger, who are trying to understand the world while you are trying to teach them the beauties of a sonnet.

Please put a price tag on that and then pay the teacher accordingly. Or give her the summer off. Or both.

***

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Every year I was teaching, my husband would compose a list of “class rules” and write it on a white board in my classroom. This is fall, 2007. Sorry for the flash. Again, 2007.

Of course I realize, too, that some people are terrible teachers, that they entered their profession in error or that, over the course of years, they have become calloused or embittered to the point that it might be best for them to stop teaching altogether. But that doesn’t happen because teaching is easy. That’s never why.

***

A teacher is a person with two loves: her subject and her students. They vie for dominance within her, and she is at her best when their marriage erupts in the classroom: when her delight in a sonnet equals her delight in her students discovering the same.

This doesn’t happen every day. It can’t.

And the most difficult part of a teacher’s job is when he is altogether unable to enjoy the thing he loves in deference to loving his students. They present with needs, difficulties, challenges, issues (or essays) that he must give his full attention while his love of sonnets molders behind the classroom door.

And that is part of the job.

***

My very favorite teacher helped me learn to write. I can’t say he taught me: like the best teachers, he understood that the best learning was a process of discovery. But he provided the insights and the examples, and he made me write. And then he only gave me praise when I wrote well.

He was an excellent teacher, and in what I consider to be among the best of the essay-ish things I have ever written, I recounted his excellence and my blundering foolishness in the face of it, and my regret.

He was a teacher, but he was also a writer– and it was his love of good writing that equipped him to teach me. No doubt it was also his hours spent evaluating my writing and that of others that prevented his getting more writing done. I wish I could thank him for that.

But there is this: he has released a book. Or rather, a book of his writing has been released (ugh, passive voice–he would have hated that), compiled and edited in the years since his death by his colleague and another of my favorite teachers, Dr. Gloria Stansberry.

DrDonnellybookFragments is a collection of Bill Donnelly’s short stories–some fiction, some not–that showcase his love of language. He taught me to love the dictionary, and this book demonstrates that he loved it too–for all the wonder and surprise a rightly chosen word can deliver.

 

He was a brave writer, unafraid to experiment with writing–and this is what he encouraged us to do, so many years ago now, in his Advanced Writing class.

I think he knew what I have learned: that writing is always a risk; that you never show up to the task alone, despite how solitary you are; and that perseverance just might produce quality. So it’s always best to try.

He said, “Fragments are not the enemy. I like fragmentary sentences, vivid imagery, humor, weird repetition and variation, sound effects, contentious dialogue, electrifying facts, surprise.”

 

 

I did not know him well, but I can vouch that the above is true. It describes not just the way he wrote; it was the way he taught.

The book is titled Fragments because, I think, of his avowed love for them. But the book is fragmentary too: pieces of a life.

And that’s the thing I like best about the book: I can hear his voice as I read. No matter which story, it is Bill Donnelly’s voice reading it aloud. He is perched on a desk at the front of the room, his long legs bent in front of him. He is sucking his cheeks, he is pausing, he is enunciating the words exactly so. And I am riveted, listening, hearing not just the words but their sounds, not just their sounds but their rhythms–and finding my own voice because he shared his so generously. I am sitting there listening, and I am learning how to write.

I received my copy of the book a few months ago, but I’m writing about it today to celebrate. The book itself is a few months old, and today my novel celebrates one year since its release. I guess one could call it my book’s birthday.

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So this is another gesture of gratitude to Dr. Donnelly, who above all others, helped me find my voice as a writer– or who, at the very least, most emboldened me to try. It is the page, after all, that teaches us to write. But Dr. Donnelly provided me immeasurable help.

Once more, Dr. Donnelly: thank you.

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William Francis Donnelly, III    1935-2015

 

Fragments is available here. 

 

 

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