My friend Robert Bell once worked with me at the News & Record before becoming a middle-school teacher. He was, and remains, one hell of a writer. But he’s no longer a teacher. He posted on Facebook to that effect earlier today, and with his gracious permission I’m republishing his post in its entirety. I’ll add nothing except to say that when a teacher of this caliber walks away, our children lose, and too many teachers of this caliber — some of whom teach or have taught my own kids — are walking away.
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It is odd, surrounded by all this quiet. Oh sure, if you listen – I mean really listen – there’s noise. The hum of the air conditioner, the muted taps of a keyboard outside my office, the distant laugh down the hall. But for the most part there is nothing but quiet, and that is new to me.
There is no Elijah in my face, laughing so hard milk explodes from his nose. There is no Destiny or Tyra to ask me what a boy likes in a girl. I haven’t seen Ben or Brooke in three days. Who will I tell to pull up his drooping pants if there is no Wade? Where is Kevin to politely remind him to keep his feet to himself?
I resigned from my middle school job last month. Looking back, the only thing more difficult than leaving my students was the job itself. On my first day of teaching – an exhilarating, uplifting nine-hour whirlwind of joy – I wondered where this job had been all my life. On my last day, I sat fell into my chair wondering how I lasted so long.
This is not a rant against how teachers are treated like lepers by our governor. His actions and inactions speak for themselves. This is not a screed against our legislators. They are perfectly capable of explaining how, in one session, they cut funding to our children’s education and gave precious tax money to for-profit charter schools while my students are using science textbooks that claim Pluto as the ninth planet.
Instead, this is an elegy to the folks I left behind, the hardest working and least understood professionals I know – your child’s teacher.
Like most jobs, teaching has two versions: The chestnut Hollywood portrays and reality. I fell hard for the Hollywood version. You know, the one where the teacher walks in and instantly a hush falls over the classroom. This is followed by students dutifully pulling out their notebooks and, pencils in hand, wait for those pearls to tumble from my mouth.
Oh, the places we’ll go! The stories we’ll read. There will be lively discussions of Whitman and O. Henry and Poe. Hands will shimmy in the air, their owners eager to share their own wisdom and connections.
Then there’s the other version of teaching I like to call reality. On my first day at my middle school, a father choked his son for leaving his lunch at home. Another student whispered to me she wasn’t wearing any underwear – and that she didn’t have any for the new school year. A third raised his hand and asked me to pronounce the word on the whiteboard: Welcome!
Welcome, indeed. After that first day I realize Whitman and his friends might want to come back in a few months.
Someone a lot smarter than me once described teaching better than I ever could. Imagine a lawyer (or banker or accountant or doctor) showing up for work one morning and finding 32 clients in need of their services. Each client had a different problem and was unable to articulate it. Some were angry they had to be there. Others were thrilled to get away from their homes if only for eight hours a day. Some were quick to explain their needs and desires, but became frustrated when it took so long to get to them. Others were easily distracted. Ready? Learn!
Don’t get me wrong, teaching is not an impossible job, just an incredibly difficult one. I’ve worked with many wonderful teachers who meet the needs of their students every day. And while the high test scores and rookie-of-the-year award were nice, my heart told me I wasn’t one of those teachers.
I dreaded telling my students I was leaving. At the start of the school year I brought in a cake and candles for each class. We closed the blinds and turned off the lights and made a pact around the flickering candles: For better or worse, we were in this school year together. I told them some might grasp the lesson that day and were welcome to move forward. I told them others might need more time – and that was fine, too. But one thing was certain: We were in this together. Nobody was being left behind.
After hearing that I was leaving, Elijah tearfully told me I was breaking up our secret club. I told him he was right. I told him I was sorry. I told him the only reason I would ever leave him was for Kate (a fixture during my after-school tutoring) and the rest of my family.
At the end of the day, Rion scribbled a note and put it on my desk before hurrying out the door to her bus: “Please don’t go, Mr. Bell. I know this letter is not fancy, but it was made with care. You were once like my white father to me. Now you’re like my father. I wish my mom had met you.”
CJ, who never met a lesson that couldn’t be put on pause so he could sketch, drew me a comic strip. I am swinging an oversized pencil at a dragon named Stupid. By the end, Stupid is sprawled out on the ground. Mr. Bell and his full head of hair are smiling and the children are cheering. “Do you get it? Do you get it? Mr. Bell! Met-a-phooor!”
I’m staring at his metaphor right now. It is in my office, my incredibly quiet office, next to the picture of the two of us at a school dance. CJ was nervous about going to the dance. He said the only way he would go was if I went with him. He clung by my side the first 15 minutes. Never saw him the rest of the night.
I knew I would miss CJ and the rest of the kids. I just didn’t think I would miss them this much.
When people asked me what I did for a living I gave them what they wanted to hear: “I’m a teacher,” I’d say.
What I wanted to say is, “What do I do for a living? Every day I walk into a classroom and discover worlds I never knew existed.”
Like CJ’s world, in which his mother keeps him home whenever she’s feeling lonely and depressed. Like Remy’s world, in which he came to this country after watching a warlord shoot his father to death back in Africa. Like Tyra’s world, in which she writes letters every week in class to her father in jail. She’s still waiting on him to write back. Like Angel’s world, in which he has a perfect attendance and regularly stays after school for tutoring – if only to escape going home to Mom and Dad’s arguing. Like Justin’s world, in which he and his two brothers and cousin take turns sleeping on a single bed each night.
A teacher is more than just someone who fills your child with knowledge and makes them “globally competitive,” whatever in the hell that means. They make many of their students happy, well-adjusted human beings and instill in them the audacity to believe they can be more then what they ever dreamed they could be.
Maya Angelou, whose stories we read in class this year, once wrote “of all the needs a lonely child has … the one that must be satisfied, if there is going to be hope and a hope of wholeness, is the unshaking need for an unshakable God.”
I’ll count those 19 months in a classroom a success if just one of my students thought I was their Kingdom Come.