Wednesday, May 24, 2017


I am still processing what happened this year, the year that became a blur before it even began.

We all have someone in our lives, whether it be ourselves or another person, someone who attaches the intangible nature of memories, love, or values to collectibles. A picture mounted in a century-old silver frame handed down generation to generation. An old wooden rocking chair used by the matriarch of a family to rock the young children to sleep. Plaques of achievement, culminating awards for accomplishment of spirit and determination. Then there are items of glass: crystal wine glasses, depression era milk bottles, figurines etched with tiny letters of the times and places of celebrations. All are one in the same, all glass susceptible to being cracked, broken, or shattered if knocked from a perch of safety. We take great care when moving the glass, carrying it from one place to another, the effort rising and falling depending on the significance of the glass to us or to those who have entrusted the glass to us for safe-keeping and transportation.

The end of May is nearing, bringing to close another year of teaching, the twenty-seventh year for me. Teaching has been the perfect profession because it affords the opportunity to pause at the end of the same chaotic time each year to consider what I have accomplished with my students, tie up all the loose ends, file away the better lessons, pitch the terrible ones, and watch the credits roll until a new year begins in August.

I tend to experience each school year as a season of an episodic television show. While the central cast remains the teachers, the true focus is on the students who walk through our doors, the young people parents have entrusted to our care for nurturing, educating, and even disciplining when needed.  Each year is a different season, containing different conflicts contrasting different triumphs, but all readily available to binge-watch in my memories in order to catch certain themes or story-arcs that leave me with some insight into life itself. Each class, each year is unique, set apart from those which came before or after, not because their challenges or personalities are so dissimilar but unique because of how the students address what life has placed in their path.

In teaching, as in life, preparation only takes each of us to the moment at hand. Once the moment arrives, an unexpected detour sign may appear on a street we travel every day, a train may need the track we are about to cross, or a torrential downpour may flood our valleys, forcing us to carry one another to higher ground until the water subsides.

The loss of our colleague, friend, and teacher, Jamey Conlin, back in October of this school year was that downpour, blurring the horizon of a clear fall day. As a community we did the best we could to navigate through those first weeks, but as a teacher and someone who had also experienced this loss personally, I faced the challenge of grieving myself while continuing to teach my students, the same students who were traveling through their own stages of grief. The loss gave me, hopefully gave them, purpose out of necessity.

I can remain at the stage of denial and isolation better than anyone, locking myself in my own thoughts while leaving the world around me to fend on its own. I could not do that this time. I could not look at the faces of those juniors and seniors who walked through my door every day, selfishly thinking that we could all go through this alone. I could not shake the feeling that many of them would continue to process the emotions of those weeks in their own way and in their own time long after singing the last hymn at Jamey's funeral.

They were glass. I was glass. Fragile. Breakable. Right or wrong, that is how I felt at the time.

The year continued to chug along at an odd pace for me as the students and I slowly moved back into some semblance of a routine (if that is even possible in high school). We read our novels, wrote our papers, practiced our AP test, created our scrapfolio pages. An unusual mood hovered nearby, some unnameable perspective washing over me as I 
paid more attention, listened more closely, processed events more carefully as I watched over the students in my care.

By late winter we began the personal account project during which I ask students to thoughtfully explore a significant moment in their lives, mirroring the style of an author we had read or utilizing devices the author uses while articulating an insight into their own lives or that of life itself. Two years ago I added a challenging twist to the project: create an audio narration of the written personal account to play over photographs or images, fashioning a unique video of this significant moment. I always remind the students to choose some aspect of their lives they are comfortable sharing, noting that creating and presenting the video is the end goal of the process.

So with tremendous care we began the project, discussing possible events and moments, reflecting freely in our journals. As teachers, as adults, as parents, we all need to listen carefully to these discussions, hearing the subtext of their reasons for choices these young people make. After the events of early October, I still remained glass myself and wondered how many of them still felt the same, hesitating to invest emotion into anything, fearful to make any kind of connection which would stunt the healing that may still be occurring.

As humans we have the ability to process our feelings through the arts: writing, music, painting, and now, even video. Being creative can be a cathartic process for us as we express our own unique experiences, giving voice to lessons we have learned, closure to chapters of our lives in order to move forward. We can find that we are not as fragile as a common piece of glass but are as strong as diamonds.

My students, the ones I prayed would find their footing again, the ones about whom I had reservations regarding their resiliency, proved to be diamonds rather than glass, stronger inside and throughout, beyond any outer countenance. Students who maturely acknowledge the passage of time as they leave teams, friends, and families, mourning this loss, celebrating the memories, even while anticipating their future. Students who can pinpoint turning points in their lives, recognizing the obstacles they have overcome while articulating the keys to their success. Students who have experienced death in all of its forms: old age, tragic accidents, suicide, and disease, eventually arriving at their own understanding of the preciousness of life. The stories were all there in the words and videos the students created, those stories they shared with one another, those that they shared with me.

As the CCHS Class of 2017 marches toward graduation day, one step closer to their future, one heartbeat away from new challenges and experiences in life, I watch the credits roll and hum along to the soundtrack of their story. I consider not what they learned from me, but what I may have learned from them. So as I am still processing what happened this year, the year that became a blur before it even began, I am slowly gaining clarity. 

To begin, we as teachers are blessed that every year parents entrust us with their pride and joy, an incredible collection of personalities, minds, and souls. We sometimes struggle with that enormous responsibility as we make specific choices about what each individual student needs to learn in order to grow, but we do our best, with admitted varying levels of success, to help a child from A to B while accepting that X, Y and Z are farther down the road. Much like receiving a collectible presented to us for safe-keeping, we  do eventually return the collectible to its owner, polished, cherished, and cared for, perhaps with even more value than when we first received it.

I appreciate this year's class so much because they continued to be so similar to previous classes. They were students who allowed me and my quirky nature to serve as a guide throughout the year, not necessarily always understanding the journey but hopefully appreciating the end result. I appreciate that this year reminded me that while young people are actually stronger than we as teachers, adults, and parents sometimes believe they are, these same young people still need help finding their way when they are lost. We can listen more attentively, we can offer more avenues of communication, and we can gently nudge them in the right direction whenever possible. They are not made of glass, they do not break, but sometimes it is perfectly fine to treat them as if they are.