Always Learning

“Hey, Ms. Dahlstrom…?”

He begins asking the question as he walks into Period 6 before class starts, and I look up from where I’m holding a stack of finished essays. I’m only here for a moment, really, just to collect the poetry analysis paragraphs my students wrote last night. As soon as I’ve done that, I’ll hand them off to the college representative, visiting from America, who will fill their eleventh-grade heads with thoughts of the future, distant in miles but not in time. For one day, I’ve agreed to let them trade in the mechanics of writing for the mechanics of a far more mysterious machine: University Admission.

“Hmm, yes? What’s up?” I reply, vaguely hoping it’s a question I can answer.

That’s the hope, these days. I’ve been feeling a bit lost as a teacher lately, confronted with ever new conundrums as I spiral back, a fourth time, to these books and essays I’ve come to know so well. Most days, the freshness of teaching inspires and energizes me, as I realize with delight the potential of a career in which I can still feel challenged and curious after eight or nine years. Oh, the possibilities! I could be teaching The Scarlet Letter in twenty years, and dig ever deeper into the symmetrical symbolism of Hawthorne’s dense prose, parsing those four character with students not even born yet. The magic of sharing old books with new students is a kaleidoscope of possibility on such days, and I’m sure I’ll never tire of it.

Then there are times when I tell myself, “You’ve done this before. How can you possibly be surprised by vague thesis statements and students who don’t like poetry? Why can’t you just figure it out?” How can I sometimes feel as clumsy in the classroom as in the ceramics studio, where I’m genuinely and justifiably a novice?

My student is holding up his shoulder bag, a new one that arrived earlier this week. It came way later than he expected, far into the school year, and when it did come it was too small for some of his binders. But still, the class’s unanimous opinion is that this bag is amazing, the coolest bag, by far, that we’ve seen this year.

“Do you know how to fix a zipper?” he asks, sighing. “My bag–my new bag–it’s broken.”

I take the bag, examining the pull that’s run off the ends of the zipper without a metal barrier on the end, which has in turn pulled entirely out of the seam. Kids’ school bags may be the hardest-working luggage ever created, and these seams were never going to make it.

“I actually can fix that,” I reply. I slide the pull back onto the two sides of the zipper, joining them once again. “But you’re going to need to fix the seam. Someone with a sewing machine… do you have one at home? Or maybe in Independent Living? You could use one of theirs. In the meantime… hold on. I might have something to fix it for now.”

I cross the room to rummage in my desk, searching for the appropriate stopper for the broken zipper. I reject a binder clip and paper clip, dredging up some memory from childhood at the same time my fingers close triumphantly on a giant safety pin. I have no idea where it came from; I’ve never seen another one in Germany.

“OK, this will work for now,” I say, securing the pin before the end of the zipper, preventing the pull from jumping its tracks again.

Bag Owner and his friends are impressed, calling my work, “Super ghetto, but awesome.”

“Best teacher ever,” says a particularly awed eleventh-grader.

I laugh, because zipper-fixing wasn’t a class I took in college, and “best teacher” isn’t how I feel. Far from having it all figured out, I’m sure now that teaching isn’t a formula, as much as I once hoped it could be. More than anything, I’m learning that teaching requires being present with these students, every day, listening long enough to see where and how they need to learn. It means having the humility to try something new if the old ways don’t work, even if they worked for one class, once upon a time.

I’m teaching every moment, whether I know it or not, even if what I can offer is a fixed zipper, or pie crusts for Thanksgiving, or a demonstration, as I ineptly throw pottery on the wheel after school, that learning takes time for everyone. I can step back when I’m confused, try to regroup and save myself from embarrassment. Or I can stay engaged, still learning, eight years in, that teaching is new every day, each morning a new opportunity to love and grow.

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