Sunday, September 5, 2010

One Ten-Year-Old at a Time

I begin another school year in just two days, and somehow, I'm not feeling it. This is my 15th year as a teacher, I recently figured out, and every single time, that first day flutter kicks in. Somehow, though, I'm not there yet.

For my first year, I was in my classroom for weeks beforehand, pouring over how-to books, making sure everything was just so. Now, I go on for one day. Really, one half of a day. Put up bulletin boards, copy my first day stuff, set up desks, adjust the schedule, and then when the actual First Day comes, my concentration is on getting my own girls ready, psyching them up, taking the pictures on the stoop and feeling all the day that a part of my spirit hovers with them, patting them when they need it, offering a wink and a smile when their nerves hit. Before my daughters, my focus was only on the students.

So, in the spirit of finding my way back to then, I'm sharing a piece I wrote for a contest about my first year teaching. It was my response to the prompt, "When did you first know you were a grown up?" I didn't win, but I will always be glad that I tried it. I'm pretty sure I never published it here before, but in case I'm old and forgetful, and you've already read it, go read the newspaper or something instead.

One Ten Year Old at a Time

“I have confidence in sunshine, I have confidence in rain…” A firm believer in the My-Life-A-Broadway-Musical approach to romance, adventure, and all of life’s challenges, I had belted fortifying songs throughout the weeks spent preparing for my first Real Job. I had been training and studying for years, had envisioned this opportunity with such hope and enthusiasm, and here it was. I was a teacher at last. My very first class – fifth grade in a tiny neighborhood school in Plymouth, Massachusetts. I assembled perky bulletin boards designed to encourage and uplift, wrote names in careful script in rank books and spelling charts, imprinting these small souls on mine before I had even seen their faces.

Marbled journals were waiting on every desk, and everyone had a sharpened pencil ready. Math workbooks assigned? Check. First day puzzles pieces cut out and labeled? Check. Nametags? My new colleagues wandered in during these preparation days to welcome me and wish me well, and to offer advice and encouragement. They walked around my cooperative-learning style desk groupings, eyeing the nametags and sharing the wisdom of their experience with my new students, the ones they had already taught in first through fourth grades. “Oh, that one never shuts up. He wants to be the class clown. Don’t let him.” Eyes scanned over the desks. “This one is bossy. She’s going to tell you what to do all the time.” “This one doesn’t do homework.” “No motivation.” “Very bumbling. Don’t leave anything breakable on your desk or it won’t be there in June.” I smiled and nodded politely as they rambled, and recited the list of Multiple Intelligences in my mind to tune them out. I knew I had to make my own decisions, and I wanted to discover who they were all on my own.

It wasn’t until I was halfway to work on that sunny, Macintosh-and-Ticonderoga scented first day that I realized a terrifying fact…I had never seen a first day of school from a teacher’s perspective. All of my student teaching experiences had occurred after the first day of school, and though I knew the logistics of what I was supposed to do…I actually had no idea, in practice, what to expect. Terrifying analogies began to run through my head…Would a pilot fly a plane without ever having seen it leave the runway? Would a surgeon operate without ever having seen that first incision made? Panic fluttered. Fifth graders are going to eat me alive, I was suddenly certain, and there is no showtune for this!

My stomach’s butterflies turned to helicopters as I walked into my expectant, empty classroom on that first September morning. Breathing deeply, I became determined to be the voice of authority, to be fortified by my student teaching experiences and never let on that I was anything but perfectly ready to lead these emergent adolescents through the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, persuasive essay writing, the scientific method, the American Revolution, and dividing fractions. I would show no flicker of weakness. I would be strong. I would be In Charge.

That mindset would not last. In that first week I learned the stories, and personalities that came along with those carefully penned names, and realized that I was in way over my head. I was given one student with severe special needs, who came with an aide that I had no idea what to do with. I completely forgot to take them to lunch one day and they were too polite to tell me. I made a wreck of my plan-book and every lesson took twice as long as it should have. I pulled the handle right off the only ancient mimeo machine, making me the Most Hated Teacher in School for four entire days. I blew a fuse by using both the microwave and the toaster in the teacher’s room while the copier was running, plunging half the school into darkness. I made a boy cry when I asked him about his mother…whom I didn’t know had died two years before…and I could not seem to keep straight the names of the Spanish Explorers I expected the kids to memorize, confusing all of us repeatedly. The harder I clung to In Charge, the more the Universe laughed and threw obstacles in my way. I was beginning to feel that I should have been a plumber instead and the only showtunes I could seem to draw from were those of the starving French peasants in Les Miserables. Things were definitely falling apart.

My breakthrough came during a particularly troubling math lesson. I had lost my way halfway through demonstrating a problem on the board. Puzzled glances and hands in the air soon gave way to muttering amongst the kids. I grew more and more frustrated at my inability to solve the problem as well as my terrifying sense that I was losing control of them, just as I knew I would all along. A timid voice rang out, “I think I know how to fix it.” Biting back the humiliated tears threatening to jump out of my eyes, I handed over the chalk and walked to the back of the room. This small, shy fairy-child erased two bits of the problem, and talked the whole class through solving it correctly. The kids nodded, light-bulbs flickered in their eyes, and one student turned to me and said, “See, Ms. Hines? We got it. It’s okay.” Their encouraging, sympathetic smiles did me in. I stopped the lesson midstream and sat them all on the rug, and I simply told them the truth. “I’ve wanted to be a teacher all my life, and I feel so grateful for this job, but sometimes…I don’t know just what I’m doing. I’m trying really hard, and I want to be the best I can, but I need your help. I need advice.” Their advice? Relax. Be yourself. Don’t worry so much. We already like you, so trust us. We’ll show you how.

In a million small moments of trust and connection, we slowly began to build a community together. I asked about their families, their dreams, their passions, and they asked about mine. And I told them. We talked together about current events, their fears about transitioning to middle school, the complications of friendship and how much things had changed from when they were “little.” And I listened hard. When I wasn’t sure the best way to deliver a particular Social Studies concept or help them prepare for a vocabulary test, I asked them, and I implemented their ideas for how to teach them best. We put on a fabulous production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, surprising the naysayers who insisted that fifth graders Can’t Do Shakespeare. We learned all the songs from Oliver! and Schoolhouse Rock. I took them all to Boston to see Donny Osmond in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and even my most reluctant theater-goers loved it. We read and we painted and danced and wrote…and we laughed. We laughed at them, and we laughed at me, and we all loved coming to school every single day.

In the fifteen years of teaching that have followed this first one, I have only grown in my appreciation of special these people were. Many of my teaching years are full of kids who come with more baggage than I can help lift, or more defenses that I am able to penetrate, but I have held fast to the lessons I learned that first year about creating a safe haven for students and teacher alike. I keep working to foster trust, because an inspirational bunch taught me how.

The Class Clown is soon to end his Navy tour of duty; I’ll attend his wedding this spring. The Bossy One leads her own fourth grade classroom. Midsummer's Oberon is now a professional actor. The one without motivation is finishing her law school degree, and the clumsy Bumbler is now a successful stand-up comedian. (And yes, he did break my favorite coffee mug.) I was hired to be their teacher, and in every way, they taught me. They taught me to be myself, finally. They taught me that opening my heart is a sign of strength, not weakness, and that I should always listen more than I talk. In doing so, they made me a teacher. In doing so, they have allowed me to teach thousands more these very same lessons. Because of what I learned from them, I now annually create a classroom where differences are celebrated, freak flags proudly fly, and truths are discovered and boldly spoken. I know I’m not rescuing people from burning buildings and I’m not curing cancer, but in my own small way, I’m changing the world, one ten-year-old at a time. And my first ten-year-olds taught me how. I grew up before their very eyes, just as they grew up before mine.


  1. You should have won the contest. This makes we want to be a fifth grader again, in your classroom. But then I remember I get to be your friend and be inspired by you all the time, not just for 180 days.

  2. This is my favorite blog to date.