Yesterday I went to the Last Poetry Cafe of the 2012 high school seniors at my old place of employment to hear poems from and to read poems to those I abandoned by retiring back in March. I was surprised and moved when they gave me a little sculpture of 2 white geese, mother and child. I immediately associated to the fairy tale about the Golden Goose and imagined myself as a guide into a marvelous world. An instant later I associated this with an undergraduate memory from my sophomore year of college in 1970 when I gathered a tiny contingent of friends for a follow-the-leader to a bar. The drinking age was 18, not 21 as it is now.
The way led through a snow and ice encrusted park--according to Worcester, Massachusetts legend, the oldest public park in the USA. One image stands out in my mind even without a photograph: Walking single file across a wooden fence rail, I looked back and laughed at the line of "baby ducks" imprinted on me as if a Mom. I won't tell you about the awful end of the tale where two of us incited a bar fight by pretending we were native Americans (Indians, then). I don't remember how I got home. What I remember from the chilled park is the laughter and clouds forming in our breath and lack of fear and delight in being alive. I remember that I couldn't lead them had they not wanted to follow.
And that is what I felt yesterday in the school library setting of the cafe, a feeling reminding me of what work had been like a few years back before my actual pinched nerves worsened under the terror of metaphorically pinched ones. What a gift!
Teaching had been my ministry and I had loved waking up in the morning to go in, revising long laid plans in my head as I drove: what had worked and what hadn't, which students needed more practice etc. Driving was for planning and centered prayer, noticing what was new, grinning at yesterday, being friends with Jesus. Each day I remembered and smiled at my Grandmother's admonition to "be kind." She had been my art teacher in high school, and she was not kind to me. In an attempt to avoid favoritism, she had aimed her sharpest comments at me. Now I wonder if she just wanted me to be excellent, but she was decidedly not kind and I often fought back tears while trying to meet the goal just out of reach by time or by talent.
As a teacher in love with learning, I think I was kind. To my own surprise, I was also very conservative in demanding students learn basic skills and formats as well as the creative writing and inquiry that I so loved releasing. Hard that, to want to follow them into the future but to demand observant attention to their artifacts, a kind of meta-learning. They always "got it" by the end of the year when they put together portfolios of their work along with self-evaluation essays. These were the real gifts to me and to themselves. Not everyone cared (understatement) and some hated the classes I taught, but I hope that some will remember how it felt to know they were good because they knew what to look for--to know they were good because they applied this skill to things that mattered to them, not to me or anyone else. I hope someday when raising children or singing to fans or studying or pumping gas, they will see that as a gift. Meanwhile, the gift I gave myself is that I did not compromise what education is to me. I did not cave in to the conformity forced around me.
I think that same strength is motivating me now as I keep writing and practicing both revision and talking to a public that so far is on-line and very small. I need the practice. Yesterday, again, students and a faculty member urged me to publish. I will break through that stay-back-stage, ride-in-the-back-seat mentality with practice.
And the public schools--in the midst of the financial crisis and the unbearable number of pink slips and lost programs--have been re-valuing creativity. The younger teachers have that covered. I don't have to be there because, in fact, they are better than I could be with my hit-and-miss methods of finding what works. If anyone can help students overcome the "I-know-better" mentality they have developed over the last few years, it will be these brave new ones. I shift my focus to re-directing me, to refuse to compromise on the move toward publishing. I will try to remember not to aim at perfection, but to get on with it, to finish, just as I told my students. Honing skills comes with practice. Meanwhile, do not hide thy light under a bushel. No more standing behind and pushing others forward without moving myself however small my steps are at first.
I thank my poets for this reflection, for this gift.