Privilaged to be Here

by Mr. Sheehy

It’s time for bed, and tomorrow is a Red day. At Central High School, we have block scheduling, and the alternating days are called Red and White days. Generally I detest Red days, not because of any student or classes, but because my planning period falls at the end of the day on Red days, and I am always exhausted by the end of them. The sprint starts at 7:50 and ends at 1:40, with a half hour for lunch stuck in near the finish; I live on-stage the entire time, giving the performance that is teaching for almost six straight hours.

But tonight, I am eager to engage another day, and I consider myself privileged to teach teenagers. I have three passages in front of me that remind me of my privileged vocation. The first comes from Philip Yancey, a writer, who admits to entertaining an attitude of permanent discontent:

Years of working as an editor honed in me an editor’s personality that is never satisfied. I spend my days looking for mistakes, striking out words, rearranging sentences, crumpling up first drafts. Such a dyspeptic outlook serves a worthwhile purpose in editing, but not in the rest of my life. I yearn for what I cannot have and cannot be. Looking back, I tend to remember all the people who have hurt me. I find myself editing my wife’s behavior, and my friends’. I react to new people with initial suspicion. People can win me over, but it is exactly that, a winning-over process. (137)

I have often invoked the first part of this passage upon myself while reading students’ writing – am I reading it like an editor or a teacher? The difference is significant. But tonight I think of the second part of Yancey’s comments, where he examines his critical attitude towards people. Can they be good enough for me? Am I editing them and forcing them to win me over? Am I doing that to students?

I was reminded of this passage in Yancey tonight when I read the words of Dr. Tim Kimmel in a book for parents. In discussing the importance of helping our children feel secure in love, he warns how our negative attitudes and light words can undercut any affirmation and love we express to them:

Many of our kids do things that annoy, frustrate, or embarass us, but they are not wrong. Every time we point these things out, we tell them that they don’t measure up. This builds a foundation of insecurity in them. (55)

In opposition, our attitudes in doing all the difficult things that parents (and teachers) have to do should not be “that we ‘have’ to do all these things for them, but that we ‘get’ to”:

Kids hear when we lament how much work they are when they are little. Teenagers roll their eyes when we announce, ‘They’re teens – what do you expect?’ On the other hand, when they hear us say that it’s an honor to have them in our home, that we are grateful for the chance to do all the things they need us to do for them (like haul them around, or spend a lot of money on them), they sense acceptance that makes them feel securely loved. (56)

These points may seem obvious, but as I examine myself, I have plenty of behavior to repent: my impatient tone when my two-year old’s emotions get the better of her and she reacts dramatically to something that seems insigificant to me; my frustrated look at a student who doesn’t listen that well and has asked a question seeking the very information I have just stated; and my list goes on.

And then I read things from my students, like this response, from a ninth grader, to a simple writing prompt where they picked a picture from Kathleen Connaly’s photoblog and jumped from there:

I picked this picture because it reminds me of this time last year. Everyone was there to remember her and in essence commemorate [my cousin’s] life. One of the many ways we did that was we had “bookmarks” made that had her picture and obituary on one side and the Lord’s Prayer on the other. The background picture for that side was a beach with two sets of footprints walking side by side. To me that picture in itself was very touching and very sad.

So, today, I sit, and look back to this time of hearts breaking. I think of all the anguish from the past year, and the struggle it’s taken to get here. But in that picture I see hope, innocence. When she died last year, there was none of that. There was brokenness and bleakness. That was all. But, I think with time we’ll all find a way to live again. I pray for that.

I am an English teacher, and the thing about being an English teacher is that your students reveal themselves in their writing, and you get to listen in as they process their hurts, share their passions, develop insight out of their experiences, and work out their opinions. A number of my classes wrote in their blogs today, and I loved it so much I read them during lunch – those precious 30 “duty-free” minutes.What a great job. I think I’ll even enjoy a Red day tomorrow.