Days on Days

“Snow is falling, snow on snow…”

“In the Bleak Midwinter,” Christina Rosetti

It’s been snowing for two hours in Kandern. Apparently, two hours of steady snow is all it takes to transform the town from dingy winter to snowglobe splendor. It wasn’t promising when it began, this storm, just a few errant flakes escaping the clouds to melt on the sidewalks. But now, the silent covering turns our world into a dusky blue, and an end is nowhere in sight. Beautiful.

While I’d usually seize a snowfall to go for a walk, it’s getting dark and I’m feeling tired, so I sit down to answer an email instead. The inquiry came from a former student yesterday, now in college, who is considering becoming a secondary teacher. What advice did I have? What should he consider? And how did I become a teacher in the first place?

And without a moment to gather my thoughts, I’m sitting in my parents’ dining room, biting my lip while my potential student teaching supervisor, Kristin, looks over my sparse resume.

“I have some concerns,” she said, looking up at me.

“Um, OK?”

“Your grades, for one.”

I tried to remember the exact decimal I’d put on the paper, failing to see where I could have given offense.

“I… my grades are…” I stammered.

“Really good,” she finished. “They might be too good.”

“Too good,” I repeated blankly.

“You do well in school. In the classroom, you might not do so well. You’ll fail. Things will go wrong. Often. Sometimes it will be your fault, sometimes not, but it will happen. I need to know that you can keep going anyway.”

This is what I was afraid of–most afraid of. That after all these years of wanting to be a teacher, it wouldn’t go as I expected. Or hoped. That somehow it would all fall apart. I nodded, hesitant.

That was the beginning of a long journey of grace. Grace from her, the grace she demanded that I give to myself as a novice teacher, the grace I doled out to my students and sometimes received from them. That’s what I write to my former student now. Learning to be a teacher is learning from a thousand mistakes, from the hard days, from the experiments that melt into the past like the first snowflakes on the sidewalk.

It’s always a privilege to hear from students–and news that they’re pursuing teaching is enormously exciting–but I finish the email thankful, most of all, for the chance to reflect. My students began their second semester on Monday with reflection, looking back on what they’ve learned this year and making “resolutions” for how they’d still like to grow. I asked them, as I do every few months, to consider why they’re here and why “we spend so much time reading, discussing and writing about things that never even happened.” It’s important to think, to remember the why of what we’re doing as much as the how.

It took a long time for me to become a teacher, I write. But eventually, all of those difficult days built up, and it got easier. I learned. Like anything worth doing–like starting a marriage or a family, like learning a language or to ride a bicycle–it is both extremely hard and extremely good.

As I’ve spent the year meeting with new and new-to-BFA teachers, these are the lessons that I remember. That it takes time to grow into anything, whether it’s a new vocation, a new relationship, a new home. That, in the end, sometimes it’s simply an accumulation of intentional days–days full of risk, experimentation and grace–that makes us teachers, wives, German speakers, bike riders.

The snow covers the trees, the fenceposts, the grass now, draping them all in white. The white of Gatsby’s party tent, or Miss Havisham’s wedding dress. All those snowflakes, so small alone, have fallen into seamless beauty.


On Time

Time, the brunt of many metaphors.

Time is money. Time is a father or a ghoul. Time flies and crawls, always when you’d rather he doesn’t.

School began today at Black Forest Academy, with the same flag-bearing pageantry that’s brought tears to my eyes for each of the last four years. This time, my fifth, was perhaps the most poignant of all. I know more now than I ever have, so each carried flag waves a story at me, not only of its hold but of siblings, homes, nations, histories and futures that they’ve written into English papers or murmured into conversation. I think about time as I watch them, how the years spent in this place have embedded these stories and people in my heart. Time does that, but so does attention.

The hours, still far from empty, are different, as my assignment at BFA has changed this year.  Gone are the regimented days filled with classes and students, governed by the imperious tri-tone of school bells. I have only two Honors American Literature classes this year, 100 minutes a day with the vocation I understand best. In addition to that, I’m coordinating mentoring and training for our new teachers, and assisting Timmy with Student Council advising. Both roles require more flexible scheduling, hence the lighter teaching load this year.

A new year means a new office, with a freshly-decorated bulletin board and a view of the river. I’ve never spent much time here. With five sections of junior English, I’d run in and out  to take phone calls or print assignments, but mostly I lived in my classroom, either vibrant with students or calmly empty. Now I’m surrounded by busy colleagues, teaching math and music and English, immersed in conversation and questions, with ringing phones to answer and lost students to assist. “You’re here!” exclaimed a fellow English teacher, finding me working at my corner desk. “You’re never here! This is fun!”

Reading through Harry Wong’s First Days of School today, I encountered his warning against teacher isolation. He admonishes new teachers to ask for help, and veterans to welcome collaboration. It was fitting to read it today, as I try to understand–and sometimes remember–what it means to support new teachers. What did I want when I was just starting out? How could someone have helped me? Who did help?

And I remember that it was people who had time. They were unpressured people, whether colleagues or supervisors, who would set aside their own busyness to step into the chaos of my beginning-teacher world and walk beside me, with a listening ear and judicious advice. I remember one who would make copies for me, and another who went to Staples to buy the school supplies that I needed in my new classroom (that year a conference room in the Library). They didn’t take the reins or shower me with handouts. They were just there.

These hours in the humming staffroom are the unexpected gift of this year. A change in teaching schedule and the graduation of my small group along with the Class of 2014 have left me with plenty of time, unscheduled and available. Suddenly I find myself able–as I’ve seldom been for the last three years–to listen and to help, to learn what it means to be truly hospitable in the workplace. It won’t be structured or predictable, not the cyclical creativity of lesson planning and grading. But I’ll be able to listen, to figure out how the laminator works, to sit by the river and hear about a day. And for that, unfamiliar as it is to my classroom-dwelling soul, I’m grateful.