In eighth grade, my English teacher, Mr. Davidson, who had been my English teacher all three years of middle school, told me he loved grading my essays and looked forward to seeing my work published one day in a book. I shrugged it off. Only other people wrote books, not me. And what would I write anyway? All the good stuff had already been written.
Sadly, Mr. Davidson passed away a few years ago.
But I have not let him down.
I am thrilled to announce that my debut book, Both Sides: The Classroom from Where I Stand is set to be released by Propertius Press this spring, sometime between April and June.
It’s really happening!
I look forward to sharing with you all this collection of narrative essays about my personal experiences as a student and teacher. Whether you are involved in education or not, I hope you will find value and beauty in these stories, because really these narratives extend so far outside of the classroom and into the reaches of what it means for us to care about other people.
Over the coming weeks I will have updates on release dates, signing parties and readings, and how you can get your own copy of the book! Out of an abundance of humility and gratitude, I cannot wait to celebrate with you all!
I would be happy teaching almost any subject. Why English Language Arts?
Several years ago, after I had been teaching for about ten years or so, I sat between strangers in a back pew at an African American church in Louisville because Maya Angelou was there. So I had to be, too. She had changed my life. I needed to see here.
She was an older woman by this time. Her strong, tall frame stooped over a bit as she shuffled across the stage to her chair. But she still exuded strength with every step. Majesty with every move. Beauty with every bend. Oh, Maya Angelou. In the flesh.
It wasn’t a rock-star moment. This was different than seeing Celine Dion or Pink perform. This was spiritual. Magical. This transcended time and space.
I took notes as Maya Angelou spoke. I needed to record every word she uttered. Of course I’ve lost the notebook--this was over a decade ago and I have more than fifty journals in my home. I’m sure it’s here somewhere. I’ve decided to rest in that for now, rather than using my energy to look and then be crushed when I can’t find it.
While I took notes, I wept at Angelou’s words. She told us not to apologize for who we were, and I knew she was speaking to me personally. Her poetry captivated me; I watched her recite line after line, her face animated and her arms outstretched, the words rolling over all of us in thunderous conviction and triumph. And she sang, her voice syrupy and deep, coarse with age, like an aged bourbon sweetened and drunk slowly. Maya Angelou’s voice, when she spoke or when she sang, was not tender or delicate, not gentle or light. No, no. At the church that afternoon, her voice poured over me with the strength of a heavy current reverberating against my chest, her notes held long and deliberate. And she let those notes carry so much emotion with them, with no shame! Her voice wavered with sobs, shook with delight, and slowed down with some secret sorrow. When Maya Angelou sang, I felt like she was offering part of herself to me.
The women on both sides of me rang out “Amen!” and “Preach, sister!” and waved their arms wildly above their heads. They let out great singing wails. I let my tears stream down my cheeks and kept writing quietly.
When I was in middle school, I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I don’t remember why I read it. It was not a school assignment. Maybe I got it from the thrift store or picked it up at the library. At that time, I read whatever book happened to be lying around. I had no idea what it was about when I opened it.
I also had no idea I would be an English teacher when I began that book. Since I was a young child I had been drawn to the idea of teaching, but I never knew what subject or what grade. I was in middle school; I didn’t have to know any of that yet.
Reading Angelou’s story changed me. It was almost immediately after I finished the book that I knew with a fair amount of certainty that I wanted to be an English teacher. But her book did more than provide me with a vocational choice. Her words affected me, and still do. Somehow Angelou was able to transport a white girl living in Kentucky in the 1990's to Stamps, Arkansas in the 1940's as a young Black girl. I learned more about American history and the human experience through her narrative than a textbook or lecture could ever hope to teach me, not to say that textbooks and lectures are unimportant. Angelou's powerful use of language engaged me through their rawness and their beauty. I saw in her character a realness that insisted I grow in empathy, and thus compassion. Her story made me a better person.
Angelou writes “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” After a series of tragic events, Angelou was mute for a long time during her childhood, afraid her words would kill people.
Quite the contrary. Her words have brought life in millions of different ways. I think she knew this. I think this was the caged bird’s song--her story.
So this is why I teach English--because I read Angelou’s book in middle school and it changed my life forever. Because I, too, know why the caged bird sings. Because I want to help my students understand how to read the stories of others in appreciation of the truth and beauty in the meaning, to learn empathy and compassion, discernment and wisdom.
Because every student has a story that must be told.
Because I want to teach them to sing.
Teaching is not fair.
I thought about this over the weekend when I faced the stack of papers I needed to grade and the lessons I needed to plan. My husband went into work yesterday, but at least he got comp time for it. I got nothing.
It’s not fair. But let me explain what I really mean about it not being fair.
Every year I tell my students about my dad. This past week, I got a new fourth period, so I told them about Daddy, too. Here’s what I told them.
My dad is one of ten kids. He grew up poor, so poor that he was often a Salvation Army angel, so poor that he often went hungry, so poor that he couldn’t play sports in school. He had to drop out of high school to work to feed his siblings when he was in eleventh grade, which happens to be the grade I teach. It wasn’t fair. My Daddy is smart. Gifted, even. Brilliant, probably. But he was hungry and not treated well.
But my daddy made a decision early on in life to make things right. He chose a good person to marry. He chose a woman who embodied love, hard work, dedication, and all the things he wanted to see in his children. And he worked. So during my childhood, while we weren’t rich, we never went hungry. Daddy made sure we had everything we needed not only to survive but to fly. He made sure my sisters and I would not be tethered to chains of poverty and ignorance. He did this not by buying us lots of stuff. He did this by educating us, by working hard, by speaking words of strange and wonderful wisdom into us that would follow us always. He did this by loving us.
So when I stand in front of the classroom, I see my daddy in these children. I see him 45 years ago: sarcastic, maybe not wanting to be there, maybe wishing he were out fishing, maybe thinking the story was pointless, maybe flirting with the girl sitting next to him. I see him every single day in my classroom. And because I see my Daddy, who I love so very much, I work hard. Of course I want him to be proud of me, but it’s more than that. I see him there, in my students, and I want the best for him. I want to turn back time so he can have everything he never had. It’s not fair that I can’t. All I can do is make it right for my own students. In so many ways, I teach for Daddy.
There is another way my job is not fair. So much of public education is broken, and so much of it angers me. However, I find great solace within with walls of my classroom.
The joy I find in instruction makes up for the frustration and exhaustion I feel outside of my classroom. When I entered the teaching profession almost twenty years ago, I entered it with an attitude of a minister. While my job is to teach Language Arts and Rhetoric, I provide that service to my students out of love, not just for a paycheck. Every student who enters my room has immense value and deserves to be loved and cared about. Every student has potential to do good in this world; I have the great honor of being a part of that.
It truly isn’t fair that tomorrow morning while the rest of the adults have to go to their jobs, I will get to go to a place where I will get to talk about Mark Twain and Plato and subordinate clauses! I get to discuss how place is important in literature, what the message is in pop culture, the meaning of epistemology and how we can escape Plato’s metaphorical cave. And later this month my students will write for me, and oh, what an honor it is to have them trust me with their words! And we will read Miller and Fitzgerald and Walker and Plath and Emerson and Hemingway and Descartes and Hobbes and whoever else they want to read, and what joy there will be! I don’t mean to make you jealous, but I get to read The Great Gatsby aloud to fourth period next month. We will read Walker’s “Everyday Use” and I will cry. I always do. I will get mad at the end of The Crucible. Darn you, Abigail Williams! No!
What will make all of this especially wonderful are the students. I will get to share all of this with my kids. They are the best part of my job. Tomorrow 123 students will filter in and out of my classroom. I am honestly thankful for each one, because each one is a life with immeasurable value and beauty. Also, teenagers are weird and interesting. Sometimes they make the job challenging, but they are worth the challenge. Even on the worst days, they give me so many reasons to smile and remind me why I am there at all. Make no mistake, it is not the children who drive the good teachers away from education. In fact, the children are the reason I stay. They are a constant source of joy for me. While I love teaching writing and literature, I think I would be happy teaching almost anything, as long as my students were there.
I went into teaching to share the love of God to others and to serve others. In truth, I have been the one ministered to. I have been the one who is continually blessed. I thank God for this job. More importantly, I thank God for every single student I have ever had the pleasure and honor of teaching.
And I thank God that I get to go to my classroom tomorrow. Like Carroll O’Connor’s character says in Return to Me when his granddaughter offers to help him, “No darlin’. Not at all. I’m blessed with work.”
No, teaching is definitely not fair.
Welcome to my Blog! I am a wife, mother of three, high school English teacher, and a graduate of the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University. Before anything else, I am a woman of faith.