2010 is over and gone, and what a year it was. It was a year filled with hope, excitement, fear, joy, and grief, but most importantly, it was a year filled with love. It is important to look back sometimes, in order to see how far we have come. Sometimes, it is the looking back that gives us the strength and the courage to continue on our journey.
The year began with the beginning of my student-teaching placement. I taught 8th grade at an inner-city middle school from January until April. If ever there was a trial by fire, this was it. In general, kids are pretty smart. They have the ability to see right through any façade you might try to put on and can tell within the first five minutes if you belong at the front of a classroom or not. Add street smarts, cynicism and complacency to the mix and you begin to get a feel for the kids that I was tying to teach. It was terrifying. It was also very hard because these kids did not want to give me an inch simply because they knew I was going to leave in three months. You see that’s the common thread that each one of them share … they have all been left, abandoned, in some form or another and their trust is gone. I’d love to say that I won them all over and that it was a dream teaching placement, but I cannot say that. There were several kids who hated me from day 1 and their opinion of me never wavered. But there were many who eventually warmed up to me, especially after they learned that I grew up in the same neighborhoods where they lived in now – “Ms. G’s from the south side!”
More importantly, I experienced teaching moments that will stay with me forever. While I was there, I was teaching a unit on the Holocaust and was flabbergasted to learn that nearly half of my students had never heard of the Holocaust or did not believe it had actually happened. We had a survivor of the concentration camps come speak to the kids and show them a documentary she had put together. Afterward, I gave the students an assignment to write a thank you letter to the speaker. Many of them struggled with what to say, so in order to jump-start their writing by reviewing what they had learned, I asked them to tell me what they thought of the film. What I learned was that we adults sometimes assume everyone will perceive things exactly as we do and we forget to give basic information. The film showed the victims, both alive and dead, who were nothing more than skeletons. But the kids did not understand how they had gotten that way. They couldn’t understand the basics such as why these people didn’t brush their teeth or take a shower. So I spoke to them for nearly a half an hour, explaining to them (without being too graphic) what had happened to the victims. I let them ask questions, and I answered in the best way that I could. When they began writing their letters, one girl who, up until this point didn’t care at all about writing or school in general, gave me her letter to read and it was so poignant that it brought me to tears. From that moment on this girl tried her best for me. Try as I might, I did not reach all of my students during my student teaching, but I reached some of them. I know I reached one, and that makes all the difference to me.
Graduation Day! What a surreal day it was. I began going to college part-time in August of 2001. I couldn’t allow myself to think about how long it would take me to finish because that would have been too overwhelming, but I knew the day would come. Finally, after so much sacrifice and so much time, it was here. It was a beautiful day filled with joy, sadness and even a surprise or two. One of the greatest joys for me was that my dear friend Maureen, who lives nearly 3000 miles away, came to see me graduate. We have been friends since our first day of school in the 1st grade and over the years she has been one of my greatest supporters. Sharing the joy of this day with her was one of life’s greatest gifts. A few moments after Maureen went to find her seat and I went to get ready for the ceremony, she called me and asked if I had seen the program for the ceremony. I hadn’t so she told me to look. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I opened it and saw that I would be graduating with distinction – Penn State’s version of Cum Laude. Oh how I had worked for that and had wanted it! However, I had thought that I had just missed making it even though I was graduating with a 3.9 GPA. My day had just gotten even more surreal and I was over the moon! It is a wonderfully strange feeling when you finally achieve a goal that you have worked towards for such a long time. The world seems to tilt a bit and it’s hard to take it all in. That is why it is so very important to surround yourself with people who have become family, who love and support you. So that when these life-changing moments come, these beautiful people are there to keep you grounded. There were a few empty chairs in that auditorium that day, chairs that hurt my heart with their emptiness, but to be able to march into a ceremony and see those who love you lined up in the front row, beaming with pride and joy at your achievement and perseverance – well, it just doesn’t get much better than that.
And so summer began. It was so very strange to go from having a place to be every day of the week, to … well … nothing. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I had a job, and that job was to find a teaching job. Over the course of the summer, I sent out over 45 application packets (resume, cover letter, clearances, teaching certification, etc.), made dozens of phone calls, and spent thousands of hours in front of my computer getting on every website of every school district within a 100 mile radius. After all of that work, I managed to land 7 interviews, 3 of which, were for substitute teaching positions. 4 interviews. Rejection is like having your heart, politely, ripped out with a spoon, over and over again. In order to lighten the blow, I began rating the letters. Those that sent no letters at all (and there were many of those) got 0 points, those that began with “Dear Applicant …” only got 1 point because they didn’t even try. Those that addressed me by name got 3 points, and the winner was the one that addressed me by name and said they hoped I would apply again in the future. Nothing like a little hope! What I’ve gained from my summer of “No” is that I am more determined than ever to not re-live the experience. As I write this, I am filling out my application for Teach for America, and once the application season opens again, my plan is to begin applying for jobs whether they are in Pennsylvania or not. I don’t know where I’m going to end up, but I do know I’m going to be teaching!
Going back to college is a huge endeavor. Much bigger than I knew when I started the process 9 years ago. It was inevitable that I was going to have to make sacrifices, but I didn’t really absorb how very big those sacrifices were until late summer. Some sacrifices were small, such as studying instead of television or writing papers instead of sleeping. Others were much bigger, such as having very little time to spend with friends and family or even maybe going out on a date once in a while! But some sacrifices take a piece of your heart and irretrievably break it. In August, my dear friend Paula lost her beautiful daughter to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Jessie was the first baby for any of my friends, and next to the birth of my two fantastic nephews, her birth was the most emotional for me. There is nothing more awe-inspiring that witnessing those you love give birth to love itself – a child. Jessie was a beautiful girl with special needs, but when you were in her pure presence you couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t really us “normal’ folks who had the special needs. She loved completely, laughed from her toes and loved life in a way that the rest of us can only dream about. Because I was working and going to school, I missed the last half of this beautiful soul’s time with us. I do not regret going to school, nor would I change it if I could, but sometimes the price we pay in life is very dear indeed.
I began substitute teaching in September. I had it all worked out in my head that I would be able to make a certain amount of money every week and things would begin to look up. What I didn’t think about was that there were going to be days when I didn’t get called for a job. The time off has been a blessing and a curse. For the better part of 9 years I had been working or going to school full-time, and for one very long period of time I did both at the same time. By the time graduation came around, I was thoroughly exhausted. So this time off have been a blessed time of rest. It has been a curse because making ends meet has not always been easy.
I began writing this blog in the fall in order to chronicle the first year of my teaching experiences, and all the changes that would inevitably occur within me. A few weeks ago I was given the opportunity to refinish a table for a couple of friends, something I used to do for a living. While it was enjoyable to do, it also reminded me why I went back to college in the first place. Yes, I want to be a teacher because it will help me to make a better living than I have ever had in my life, but it will also give me the ability to do something that I have never had the opportunity to do. To make a difference in the lives of others.
And so my friends we move on and we grow up and we grow old, and along the way we will laugh and love and cry and get angry and feel sad, but all is as it should be. Life goes on.