Curriculum Vitae

You begin to teach Romeo and Juliet because it is required. You are coming up on the suicide scene in Act Five when a student quietly mentions that a boy many of them went to middle school with, who attends a different school, shot himself in the head the night before. You hear it was part of a pact between a group, but this sad boy was the only one to follow through.

You are teaching Rudolfo Anaya's novel Bless Me, Ultima, in which Antonio has divided loyalties to the two sides of his family. You want to engage your students in a good discussion about ideas related to family. We all have one, you reason. So you ask them to describe the two sides of their family. A girl comes up and quietly says, "I'm adopted, what should I do?" Another one comes up, says in a whisper, "I live with my foster parents, was taken from my parents. What should I do?" Others raise their hands and call out: "My mom's been married three times, my dad twice. What should I do?"

You are teaching an AP Literature class, Crime and Punishment, and have the kids read some great articles on the brain, mental illness, a fine article from Scientific American Mind titled "The Violent Mind." As you lead the discussion the next day, you realize you have kids who have been diagnosed as bi-polar, depressed, or suffering from anxiety disorder. You recall a piece on the radio that morning about a book titled  The Triple Bind about the troubles girls are experiencing now: the Berkeley psychologist suggested that 1 in 4 adolescent girls is engaging in risky or self-injurious behaviors in response to the pressure to be brilliant in the classroom, competitive in sports, and physically attractive to all.

You have a student who has been out for twenty-four days, another for eighteen, two for over a week. Others are there every day but have turned in no work despite parent calls, conferences, evidence of your consistent concern.

This is what you come to each day. This is the canvas on which you paint your masterpiece, the shop where you practice your craft. Somehow, despite all these obstacles, there is laughter, there is learning, there is a community of young minds making meaning of the books we read, the lives we lead, the world as we know it.

You drive home tired, grateful for such work, even as it exhausts you, for you see in the eyes of your kids the need for someone who cares and comes each day committed to the work of helping them shape their lives into a story worth telling some day.

You have two kids of your own roughly the same age as those you teach. You think: this is all we have. They are the future. Our future. You do not feel fear, just faith.

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3 Responses to “Curriculum Vitae”

  1. What a beautiful reflection for a Friday morning.

  2. Jim,
    Ten or more years ago I was asked to help a college with a curriculum review. “We want to get a student voice here,” they told me, “but when we invite the students along to meetings, they won’t talk.”
    We decided that I would talk to 12 or so students … just talk to them. Not about the school in particular, or the curriculum. Just about their lives. Then we’d see if the chats somehow informed the curriculum review.
    It was an eye opener, in the same way as these kids quietly whispering to you after class is an eye-opener.
    Our English Association here published the result in a book called ‘Their Other Lives’. We see only tips of icebergs in our classrooms.

  3. That’s a fascinating opportunity for you, Steve. That concept of voice is so elusive yet so important. One of the great lessons I have learned from so many is to trust my kids: Ask them what THEY think. We had a not-so-great period last week. I went home and wrote them a letter, my freshman class, about a page long. Gave it to them and told them to respond. Their responses were so honest, so helpful, so earnest because I was asking them what they had to say and they knew I would listen to their voices. Thanks for your response.

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