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  • mbickhaus

Existential Paroxysm

My first teaching job was as a first grade teacher in a sweet little primary school. Adams School housed kindergarten through third grade. I was hired a few weeks after graduation and couldn’t wait to get started. It was such a traditional setting, and what’s more classic than August and first graders?

I had a massive old wooden desk that just shone like a big brilliant gemstone to me. My entire south wall was nothing but a glorious group of windows. And, OH! The bookcases! There were so many of them. And plenty of those little slotted shelves for the never-ending handouts to send home. The cherry on top was that I had this gorgeous old upright piano. I was intoxicated with the perfection of it all!

This was back when computer labs were just becoming a thing and we had to put discs (or were they disks?) in for every little program. No Chromebooks or iPads. No wireless internet. No interactive whiteboards.

Whew! I think I miss it.

First grade is a true marvel. The room is filled with six-year-old cherubs who love their teacher! They are the sweetest! Sure, a lot of them still aren’t tying their shoes and I’ve seen quite a few hygiene horrors, but they are 99.9% dolls!

The miracle is the way in which they appear in August as non-readers and transform during the year into these beautifully independent bookworms. I used to stand in front of the room and just stare at them in wonder. I’d sort of tilt my head and goggle, “Wow! It worked? It worked! It seems that it really worked!” And I’ll admit to feeling a little proud. There were moments when I credited myself with teaching them to read. I suppose I did; I WAS their teacher. But most of those kids would have learned to read even if my 4- year-old granddaughter were there guiding them along with the right books and experiences.

I didn’t possess any magic. They learned despite all of my mistakes.

I know I was just a lucky facilitator. But it was a satisfying gig. I saw the fruits of my labors. Sure there were kids who had a harder time but it seemed that nobody was beyond the grasp of accomplishment. It felt good. Ha! That’s an understatement. It felt incredible! I worked hard and it paid off. There was a tangible reward for my investment of time and energy.

These days are different and I’ll admit that I often feel like a failure. There’s just no way around it. I know I’m doing important work. I know that many of my students love me despite their harrowing experiences - trusting me or anybody goes against everything life has taught them. I know I’m a hard worker and that I throw my whole self into it. I’m passionate, loving, creative, and all that. But I still feel like a failure.

If I compare the accomplishments of a year of teaching first grade versus teaching high schoolers who’ve experienced trauma and attachment disruptions, then I am a loser.

My present students behave differently. These days, my:

Students walk out of my class.

Students refuse to even enter my class.

Students complain about my methods.

Students argue about the lesson.

Students accuse me of treating them like little kids.

Students interrupt 90% of my statements/questions/lessons/directions.

Students swear at me.

Students yell at me.

Students threaten me.

Students critique my body.

Students destroy my possessions.

Students sleep in my class.

And students get away with these things because when it comes right down to it, I can’t stop them nor can anybody else. I feel defeated. Wouldn’t you? I feel like a failure.

At the end of every school day I reflect and I ache with a weighty sense of incompetence, impotence, and regret. I rack my brain and try to compose a fresh and more effective approach for the next day. I leave school and my cerebral hopes have been …juiced. It’s like somebody jammed my head and heart on to the juicer’s reamer and every bit of sense has been reduced to juice and pulp with nothing to keep it together.

But that doesn’t last even the four minutes it takes me to drive home - and yes I drive the 10 blocks because I don’t even have 10 minutes to spare…and it’s hard to walk in heels while carrying all of my “school stuff”.

I usually regain my sanity within seconds and my passion for these kids rarely flags. I breathe deeply and gather my senses while I remind myself of my purpose. There is a reason I am here. My students are my “why" at work.

My reason assures me that I am making a difference. Logic reminds me that I have to measure my success by the new student who linked her arm into mine as her tears were assuaged because I listened to and comforted her.

The metrics by which I consider my success or failure are entirely different now. And for all of the challenging behaviors my students exhibit, they are almost always equal to the apologies, the warmth, the smiles, and all of the relational progress we make.

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