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.