Putting out the Trash

trashFor the past couple of days, my freshmen have been doing a collaging activity, which is a teaching euphemism for “chopping up donated magazines and pasting them on printer paper.”

With few exceptions, the English teachers at my school have all new students this semester due to our new pilot program. I don’t know my new freshmen (three classes worth, all above capacity) very well yet, but it was immediately clear that I was going to have some classroom management “challenges” (which is a teaching euphemism for “stuff that really sucks”). One of my classes is under the thrall of a nasty ringleader; another class is a perfect storm of smart-alecky ne’er-do-wells who all feed off of each others’ poor behavior. The third class might be pretty okay except for the fact that they’ve crammed almost 40 kids into the room, and once that stampede starts there’s little I’ll be able to do to head it off.

For the duration of the collage lesson, I’ve been riding herd on these three clowders in an attempt to keep them working and, wherever possible, actually following the instructions. On top of that, I’ve had to ask, beg, direct, and threaten them to clean up their work areas. I’ve never had such a hard time getting students to clean up after themselves. I can walk up to a trio of kids and point directly at the garbage by their feet, ask them to pick it up, and they’ll pretend they don’t hear me. Piles of magazines left in chairs. Markers and rulers thrown under desks. Finally, I’ve succumbed to treating them like junior high kids and have made myself into a barricade across the door, refusing to let any/ of them leave when the bell rings until I’m satisfied with the condition of the room.

(“It’s not my mess.” Well, do you want to leave on time? Then you might ought to chip in.)

I am not entirely certain that freshmen are my thing.

Today, though, I was pleased to see that my nagging had paid off. The room wasn’t pristine or anything, but there was nothing horrifying left over after Hurricane Adolescence passed through. Then I looked at my magazine bin and saw that it had split down the side, spilling old copies of US News & World Report onto the carpet, so I decided to take a few minutes to switch out to a plastic bin and toss out the magazines that were no longer salvageable.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the box was half filled with garbage. Wadded up papers, tiny scraps, even broken pencils and candy wrappers. A crushed empty water bottle.

Blood pressure mounting, I spent about half an hour filling my garbage cans with freshman detritus. As I moved around the room, I found garbage in my bookcases, hidden under the textbooks under the desks, in the plastic shoebox with the colored pencils and — in a moment that will surely go down in history — stuffed into the shavings drawer of the electronic pencil sharpener.

I’m really not sure that freshmen are my thing.

I dragged my small garbage cans into the hall (they were too heavy for me to pick up) and sat down for a few minutes to work on the poetry packet for Contemporary Literature (a junior/senior class). Flipping through anthologies, my eyes fell on “Overworked” by Lucy Partlow:

After we
ovulate
menstruate
gestate
lactate
procreate
and prostrate ourselves to creation . . .

After we
raise children
raise grandchildren
raise men
raise hell
and raise the dead in tribal dance . . .

After we
clean house
clean clothes
clean collard greens
clean people’s stores
and clean up the aftermath of wars . . .

After we save souls
save schools
save trees
save whales
and save the world from eternal damnation . . .

After we do
the impossible
the improbable
the unthinkable . . .

Must we also put out the trash?

On first glance, I read it as a reflection on womanhood. Upon my second pass, I realized it could also be about teaching. Being a teacher is a sisyphean task, not only in terms of teaching and re-teaching content an endlessly rotating cast of students, but also of trying to help young people survive their world and themselves long enough to grow up.

The process of developing curriculum, units, and lessons is not unlike that of gestation and birth, accompanied by exhaustion, discomfort, fear, doubt, and impatience to see how it all turns out. We prostrate ourselves to the creation of lessons that meet ever-changing bureaucratic requirements and the needs of dizzyingly diverse students. We give of our lifeblood to nurture and nourish our students’ minds and even bodies.

We raise children when their parents can’t or won’t. We hope they take something of us with them when they leave our classes, that our influence will carry on into their future lives — that, perhaps, they will teach their descendents (biological or not) something we’ve taught them. We try to raise sloppy boys into men and snotty girls into women. We, protective lion(esse)s that we are, raise hell when our cubs are threatened. We, the storytellers and memory-keepers, dance the past into life.

Many of the best teachers I’ve known address teaching — knowingly or not — as a ministry. We know that, for some of these kids, we are the only thing they’ve got. We know that souls, if not being saved (fortunately, I can’t think of any teachers I know who have messiah complexes) are at least being shielded and fed. Good teachers are activists, some quiet and some not; they’re shepherds and counselors and paladins. Good teachers fight for the future, on a small scale — each student’s next year — and, when they aren’t too exhausted to think about it, on a global scale.

Every day, I see my colleagues do little bitty things that are impossible, improbable, unthinkable. Most days, we’re talking grains of sand… but over the course of a career, individual grains of sand build dunes.

And of course, we put out the trash.

Literally, with cuts to custodial staff due to budget problems, we take out our own garbage and are given economy-sized bottles of Spic-n-Span so that we can disinfect our own classrooms.

Figuratively, we deal with the day-to-day garbage of an overextended system, the environmental garbage of a society that doesn’t (or can’t) value education, and the rising tide of political garbage that threatens to flush stressed and disgusted educators out of the system.

Nightly, we drag our carcasses home after a long day of raising other peoples’ children and trying to save the world, and if we’re able, we leave the garbage of the day at the curb before we walk in to our homes.

Don’t paint pictures of teachers in capes, turning thugs into academics through the power of hip-hop and street toughs. Sketch them, instead, with a garbage can full of magazine clippings, closing the door to an almost-tidy classroom behind them until the next morning.

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