Friday, July 13, 2007

A Teacher's Dark Days

I just finished watching Half Nelson, a powerful film about a teacher who works in a tough school with tough kids. Unlike so many puff films about heroes making a difference, this guy is the classic missionary teacher with a dark twist; he has a serious drug habit. To be fair, the strength of the film is the pairing of his story with the story of one of his kids, who is fighting to stay out of the life that has landed her brother in jail, the life of a drug dealer. You can probably imagine how this might cause a painful intersection in the lives of this teacher and student.

But I naturally identified more with the teacher. And, though I don't have a horrible drug habit, I couldn't help but see a little too much of myself in the character. On my darkest days, I think there are two kinds of teachers. There are the a-holes who are arrogant enough to think they can make a difference in kids' lives. And there are the a-holes who just can't do anything else. On my dark days, I think I may be both.

I know we are cogs in the machine, filling our roles just as the students do, perpetuating the system as much as we challenge it. The best we can do, as cogs in the machine, is lean just a little. We shift our weight, in hopes that we might affect the machine's trajectory, if only by a degree or two. And on my darkest days, I realize how little I weigh.

I weight about 135 pounds. Tonight it doesn't feel like enough.

Summer is supposed to be the time for teachers to recharge. Instead, I sulk in the sweltering heat, like cheap meat in stew, thinking about my role and how well I fill it. I look forward to being back in my classroom. It's easier to believe I'm making a difference when I can see my students. In their presence I don't feel as insignificant, as weightless. During the school year I don't have the time to read three or four daily newspapers and contemplate my status as a casual observer of mountains of injustice. I have plenty of work to do, but in the summer I have just enough time to wonder if it's all worth while.

135 pounds. And still leaning.

Towards September.

1 comment:

Dustin Abramson said...

Perhaps your physical weight might not have much bearing on society, but your intelectual weight surely does. I don't know how often you hear from a student the big "You changed my life completely, I used to have a solid 'F' average and now I'm a straight 'A' student". However, the practicality of the previous statement is by all means absurd.

From my own observations, be they casual or not, I found you to be extremely insightful no matter which a-whole you were on any given day. I tend to believe that we have the opportunity to be influenced by everyone we meet. We either learn from their successes or we learn from their mistakes. I think teachers having the enourmous, and often thankless job, of teaching students are often in the greatest position to influence them. The only other adults we tend to spend any substatial time with are our parents (further proving that children tend to be reflections of their parents) and coaches.

I'm taking philosophy next year at the University of Washington which doesn't at all coincide with my bioengineering degree, but part of that is in thanks to you. I have nothing, but respect for your opinions and admiration for your knowledge of seemingly everything. The last sentence was easy to say seeing as I know almost nothing. I know that I am not the only student who you led to water, in your own unique way, and decided to see how it tasted. I also know that I will not be the last. I've had too many teachers who have given up or, for them, teaching is only a job that they show up to and go home as soon as they can once the day is out. You, like a couple others I can think of, do care about your students and we notice, even if often we don't say so. I guess I have the honor of speeking for everyone (A privelage given to me by my unique ability to be the only one able to comment on your page) when I say that you are one of the great teachers of Central who will inspire kids to become more than they are.

From your student and I hopefully your friend,

Dustin