“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Back to school is a most hopeful place. Clutches of pointy pencils, newly sharpened.
Unlined journals, clean and ready. Desks cleaned, the slight pungent scent of Clorox wipes lingering in the eager air. Book bags, summer hidden, sleeping soundly under messy beds, are now shaken out and dusted off and stand at attention near newly-purchased lunch boxes. Summer reading almost complete, dog-eared pages of lines too beautiful to be forgotten. Names printed neatly in permanent marker.
I am ready for school to start again.
My room is clean, syllabus ready. The day before school starts, I stand in my classroom knowing this is the last time it will be completely quiet for many months. I pause to listen and I can already hear the sound of feminine laughter wafting up the stairway, finding its way into the fiber of my walls.
My classroom is on the freshman hall. Freshmen have been in the hallway all morning, clinking and clanging their books into nice rows in their lockers, the first and last last time these books will enjoy such order. A father is helping his freshman daughter learn to use a combination lock for the first time, their heads bent together over the stubborn digits, concentration thick.
I wonder if he isn’t taking more time than necessary teaching her this skill – love-lingering with the pleasure of a moment that won’t come again.
I meet these people, parents of students who will not be mine for another three years. “I’m the senior English teacher,” I say again and again. And still they talk with pride and introduce their fourteen-year-old and tell me snippets of her story, what’s she has done all summer and how much she loves to read and ask me if I know she is a dancer. Girls glance shyly over their shoulders at our talking, wondering if they should be embarrassed or pleased by such conversation. I smile and wink. I like these stories.
In the excitement and noise of this chaotic moment, sixty-plus freshman girls and their parents all in one hallway at one time, I can hear the tune of a very old song hovering above the din, if I stop and listen. I hear it every year and sang it myself when I stood in their shoes, watching a child cross the tremulous and glorious threshold from child to teen.
The song of growing up. Going to high school.
So many fears haunt the notes and lyrics of this old melody. Fears birthed, maybe, as we stood on this threshold ourselves so many years back, wondering what was waiting for us on the banks of this unknown shore. And now a child of our own stands on the same shore and all the roles have changed, everyone seeking firm footing on these shifting sands.
The lockers on the freshman hall echo the melody this morning – they listen as new people arrive on the hall, and they smile as we all hear the old words wafting again up the school stairs.
New kids, new parents, but always the same lyrics, the same song.
Is she ready? Am I? Is she good enough, smart enough, prepared? Has she done her work well? Have I? What unexpected trial lurks around some dark corner I didn’t even know existed? Will she remember not to get in cars with strangers? Did she eat a good breakfast? Will she remember to bring her books to class? Will people be nice to her?
Will she be nice to them?
I know this anxious song, have heard it countless times, with young ears and old. But I remember what these folks may have forgotten on this day of moving in and moving up. Someone is here all day long, waiting to help her, ready.
To be a good teacher, a really good one, I must remember one essential thing every day, the most significant fact of all. Not the iambic pentameter of a sonnet or a certain chemical equation or irregular French verbs, as important as those things are.
I must remember that my student is a person, someone’s child. And I should treat her as I would want someone to treat my child. I must.
Not as a number or a disruption or a form or a label, but a human being God has placed in my path, someone very special placed under my tutelage for a few brief months, a person who will change and transform under my instruction, hopefully for the better. Someone who may be under a terrible strain away from school, a fact I must remember when her face is long or bitter or when she is uncooperative. Someone who may remember me as kind and helpful, someone who made her life better, easier, richer – this simply must be the case. Each student who crosses the threshold into a new classroom this school year deserves this chance, the chance to be loved and accepted and well-taught as if she were my own.
There is simply no other alternative, there cannot be. This is my job, my privilege.
This is the calling of a teacher.
The girls are loud, chattering and squealing and giggling. Happiness is noisy, I’ve learned.
Each day as I walk this hallway and cross the threshold of my room to teach another group of girls, I will adjust my glasses and remind myself to see this, really see it.
Then I will remind myself that each one of my students is someone’s daughter. And I will treat her as I want people to treat my child. And my grandchild. I will do my best, and I know scores of teachers who do the same. Will you join us?
It’s a pretty good way to live a life.