In my first year of teaching, I was lucky to have veteran teacher Larry O’Keefe as a friend and mentor. One afternoon, at the conclusion of a day that had been particularly discouraging for me, he told me one of the secrets of the profession: every abysmal day is soon followed by one that is exhilarating and wonderful. Guaranteed. And I have never known this to fail.
Larry reminded me that there would be kids with whom I’d make a real connection, and others I’d feel I’d never been able to reach. You do the best you can, he said, but you don’t judge yourself only by the failures, and you must ultimately put the bulk of your energy into people who give energy back. He also suggested that I start a shoebox file of all the motivating little notes and cards that I was sure to accumulate as time went on. I call this my “feel good” file, and whenever I doubt myself, it provides tangible evidence to the contrary.
“And don’t be so hard on yourself,” he advised, which is a little like telling a mole not to burrow. “Sometimes you need to leave it behind. Go for a walk. Visit a friend. Refresh.”
This refreshment concept was new to me then, but I now understand it is essential. After teaching for six years, I have learned the rhythms of the academic year. I know how its music rises by May to an emotional crescendo, then begins to dissolve, along with my stamina, as I turn my face toward the warm breath and broad blank days of summer. I recognize the incongruous tugging of remorse at year’s end, the odd sense of loss as I wave from the shore to the kids I’ve grown to love.
When you put your heart into your work, as teachers do, there will be times of true hurt and disappointment. There is an intense emotional component to the job, and when I use the expression “losing heart” I’m talking about something other than weariness or fatigue. But the only remedy is courage. We must ride out the episodes of disillusionment and be stronger than our doubts.
The closest I came to losing heart was when an ugly and unfounded complaint was filed against me just as the academic term concluded. I was shocked, sickened, and deeply hurt. This time, the year had not dissolved — it shattered. And then came dispassionate summer. Every day was foggy, and all I could do was brood.
“Try to avoid being bitter,” one colleague suggested. “It doesn’t hurt your enemies and only consumes you.” But there was a seed of cynicism in me now that seemed the antithesis of teaching, which I had always seen as the profession that most embodies hope and idealism.
A teacher-friend who had been through a similar experience recalled that it was “sort of a combination of being accused of something you didn’t do and a horrible secret fear that you’d been wrong about yourself and your work all along.”
“My previously unwavering confidence and pride in my work.” she wrote, “was crumpled amazingly. I still knew and believed that I was good at teaching, and loved the kids, but I felt compromised.”
Maybe that was the crux of it. My confidence was crumpled. How would I manage to rally the self-assurance and motivation to face a new class in the fall? I felt tainted, disillusioned, depressed.
On the first day back, I held my head high. My students were a rambunctious lot, boy-dominated — very bright, spirited kids who looked at me with hopeful open faces, heartbreakingly ready for whatever adventure the new year might hold.
I decided to share a few stories, as I often do on the first day of school, so I described the adventures of my childhood with my beloved brother Eddie. It was when Eddie died of kidney disease that I had decided to become a teacher. I simply wanted to do something good in his memory to show the world how much he mattered. I told this story because I wanted my students to see that there are ways to turn sadness into hope, even if indirectly.
The bell rang , the kids dispersed…and then I heard the sobbing. A small boy sat in the back of the classroom, head down, weeping. A sixth grade child had felt my old, worn sorrow, and empathized. A sixth grade child had reminded me that we are all inextricably connected, that love and loss are universal, that to buffer ourselves against the pain of others is to lead a stilted life, and to act upon the impulse to care is called compassion. I remembered again why I teach.
And then, not because of this insight, but only because vacation had ended and God loves irony, the sun returned. And when the sun returned, I saw anew the beautiful place in which I live. I saw dolphins turning like wheels in the water, and one day there was an eagle perched on a post at the west end of the ranch. I saw that I had loyal friends whose trust in me had only grown stronger, saw that I live in a true community where lives do touch, knew that simply being clumsily present is better than hiding, that feeling is better than numbness, that the art of teaching and living is in the shaping and the using of the feeling. I understood that those who act from the heart are forever vulnerable, and I know I cannot live any other way.
And I silently thanked Larry O’Keefe, whose guaranteed principle had once again proven true. For every wretched day, there is one of wonder.
-Cynthia Carbone Ward