It is the end of my twenty-second year of teaching. Twenty-two years. I’ve spent almost half my life as a middle school educator in a small city. Every year when summer break finally arrives, I usually feel a sense of relief. The relief does not come because I’m going to have the “summer off” to watch soap operas and eat bon-bons, although that’s probably what most Americans think teachers do over the summer months. Actually, many teachers take on second jobs over the summer in order to support their families (we do not get paid over those months). Others take summer courses, attend workshops, or develop new curriculum for the next school year. I am no different. Yet even though I will continue working in one form or another during the break, I feel relieved that the school year is over. I’ll get a reprieve from the mounds of paperwork, the endless meetings, the data-crunching, and the never-ending workdays. I’m glad I’ll be able to go to the bathroom whenever I need to, and that I’ll have time to eat lunch like a normal person instead of inhaling it in twenty minutes or less. And sleep! Hopefully I’ll get enough shut-eye to rid myself of the perpetual bags and circles under my eyes. All of these things are great, but it took some soul searching to uncover the deeper reason I feel relief.
I realized that the real relief I feel at the end of a school year is emotional relief. From September to June, most of the emotions I feel are brought on by the empathy I have for my students. Many of my seventh graders have lives that require them to be in survival-mode, and school is a safe place where they know they will find the structure, guidance, and support they need to get through another day. Urban schools provide mental health counseling, basic nutrition (many only get food to eat when they are at school) crisis management (we have a resource officer stationed in our building and continuous contact with Child Protective Services), and drug counseling. They teach tolerance toward others, anger management skills, and basic hygiene. Delivering these services has simply become second nature to those who work in inner city schools. However, witnessing the conditions that make these services necessary in the first place takes its toll on teachers. We know what these kids go home to, and we worry for them.
But when you experience certain feelings long enough, they become your normal. You become accustomed to the level of anxiety. I didn’t realize how emotionally draining my job is until my student teacher pointed it out. Mike was getting ready to begin teaching a couple of my classes, and he wanted some background on the kids in each class. So I gave him the basics: this one attempted suicide for the second time earlier in the year, and misses class frequently for counseling; these kids have parents who are incarcerated; this one has been sexually abused; all the kids in this group have been removed from the home and are living with other relatives; that one became homeless last year when her dad lost his job. In between copious note-taking he stared at me wide-eyed, in disbelief. I told him not to worry, that the kids were great and he would love teaching them. And he did! When Mike met my students for the first time, he thought they looked like typical seventh grade kids who love to dab and play with fidget spinners. His frame of mind changed when he read their journal entries.
Most middle school kids love writing assignments that allow them to talk about themselves, and my middle schoolers are no different. So Mike created activities that used the lyrics from popular songs to teach different types of figurative language. Then, in order to make a personal connection with the kids, he asked them to write a journal entry about a song that evoked a memory. He was not prepared for the stories they shared with him.
One young man wrote that every time he hears Luke Bryan, he remembers his father, who used to beat him regularly until his mother finally kicked him out. Luke Bryan was his dad’s favorite country singer. His songs make him cry, because although his father was abusive, he still misses him.
A quiet girl with glasses described the music she listens to when she feels sad about her mom. Earlier in the year, her mother was assaulted and beaten to death.
Whenever a certain artist from the sixties comes on the radio, another seventh grader is reminded of his father who died from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. His uncle died from the same condition. At twelve years old, this boy is already worried that he will suffer the same fate.
When Taylor Swift sings, a beautiful young lady recollects the time her drug-addicted mother kidnapped her and her younger brother from her father’s house and attempted to take them across state lines.
Another child described the song an EMT sang to her in an effort to keep her awake on the way to the hospital. The girl had overdosed on her parents’ prescription medications, and she ended up being in a coma for some time before she recovered.
These are just a few of the topics my students openly discussed for this assignment. After reading their entries, Mike was visibly upset. He said he never would have known these kids had such traumatic backgrounds.
“I don’t know how these kids manage to get through school each day. As a teacher, how do you deal with these problems day in and day out?” he asked. “After reading about these kids’ lives, I feel like there is a black cloud hanging over the school. How do you balance teaching with caregiving?” I told him that over time the balance comes naturally.
But later on I realized that wasn’t really true. There is no balance. There can’t be when you are talking about helping students survive life-changing circumstances. Yes, my main job is to teach my students to be successful readers and writers, but they cannot achieve that goal until they understand that I care about them as individuals. I want them to feel safe in my classroom; because once they know they are safe, they can share their difficulties and hopefully learn how to overcome them. Through the life lessons of literary characters they learn that their trials and tribulations do not define who they are or who they can become. Through writing they learn how to express their feelings in a creative way, as well as logically support their arguments or positions. So both things occur simultaneously. The teaching continues. But my worry remains the same.
When the school year finally draws to a close, my students leave my classroom one last time and move on to a new grade, a new classroom, and a new stage in their lives. I leave my classroom and spend time organizing, restructuring, and creating for the next school year. Most importantly, however, the summer gives me time to decompress and distress. Educating and guiding 130 adolescent students is a momentous task in the best conditions. For a teacher in a poor city school district, the feat often seems insurmountable. Yet I will be back in two months’ time to do it all over again. Just give me time to recharge my batteries before I start the next marathon.