Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
On the last day of last year I listened to a wedding mass in South Miami. The priest, late in the series of blessings and questions, paused to remind the groom and bride what effort it took to build a marriage. He chose to tell the two, and coincidentally the rest of us, that "sometimes love fails, and then there must be commitment." His words struck me incongruous with the spirit of a romantic partnership. We get married, I think, with the faith that love will not fail.
In recent days I've been thinking on questions of love and commitment again. I haven't occupied myself with the hopes and emotions of my newlywed friends, nor have I dwelt upon the possibilities and failings of my own romantic life. I am a first year teacher, and against my better instincts spend most of my time either working with or thinking about fourteen- and fifteen-year-old children, their minds, and what might help them read better or treat each other with kindness. My questions are about love of learning and commitment to young people. They aren't then of romance, but of work.
When I was thirteen I hoped to work in a bakery, or at least an ice cream shop. If I smelled of waffle cone or sugar cookie, then people would surely like me. Twelve years later I've arrived at the bread works. In Southeast DC, on the marble side of the Anacostia River, an old commercial bakery, two stories tall and about three times as wide, faces a public housing complex. In the basement of the bakery building, school administrators plug away raising money and planning for expansion. In the upper floors, four hundred students sit for an education. Not a single loaf has left the building for over a decade, and since that time a charter school has come to reside.
I teach ninth grade there at the school in the bakery building. My course is called Foundations in History. Following the example of my father who abhors the passive voice, the mandates of the federal government, and my own desire to grade papers that are intelligible, my students spend most of their class time learning to write a paragraph with both a topic sentence and textual evidence. Most days I teach four times. Twice I work with twenty two students, and twice I work with fifteen students and a second teacher. These co-taught classes exist because some students have special educational needs. All but five of my students can read, and almost all of them could not understand the text of the First Amendment on their own.
Most of my students are Black. A noticeable minority are from El Salvador, and in an afternoon class there is a single White boy. The teachers are largely White, and young. The principal is a White man, and all of the vice principals, office staff, social workers and counselors are Black. Among the custodians and cafeteria staff are two Black men, two fair skinned Latinos and a Black woman. I am White.
At dawn I walk south to school. Before there is much light I pass a statue of Abraham Lincoln waving hands over a kneeling slave. The monument is titled Emancipation. I have doubts about the sculptor's intent. Across the park from Emancipation stands a bronze of Mary Mcleod Bethune
, tall, square and smiling. I wish she were not a block out of my way. Crossing Pennsylvania Avenue light shines off the Capitol dome and sinks into the darker shape of the Library of Congress. On wakeful mornings the long look down the avenue reminds me of the Sayers Ellis poem
, the one with the 30 bus and the kids throwing rocks. In the early evening, after debate team meets, I walk home a different route, passing the market and stopping for coffee at the shop where they sweat the beans. The days are long and the rhythm consistent.
At beats and rests in this labor I come back to love and commitment and decide that neither is enough for teaching. Without the priest's confidence that love might fail, but commitment will endure, I see them fail together. I work with three dozen teachers, talented and flexible, who commit to their students and hold a love of learning. However, the senior members of our departments are two or three year veterans, and as the first semester comes to an end we teachers begin talk of moving out, or moving on, or just plain moving. The sense of permanence and stability at my school is small and fresh, like the field downwind of a maple, filled with keys and shoots, hopeful but fragile. I am excited and happy teaching in the bakery building, but I doubt my endurance. Teachers do not stay at my high school, and we do not stay in other city schools. It seems that love of learning and commitment to students alone do not sustain a professional life.
Short term teaching is a problem because novices are not as good as experts. Exceptions to this idea exist, but on the whole experience and practice matter more than talent. Unless I leave teaching, in ten years I will help students learn more than I do today, so I need to think about how I will endure.
Two ways open before me, and I'll use both to stay. First, I'll learn to teach fewer hours. I do marvel at the light of the sun on horizon, but sunup to sun down doesn't leave me much thought for other endeavors. Next year I'll plan faster, meet between eight and four, and read student writing at school. At home I'll make waffles, remember to write letters to Rhode Island, and use the evenings to practice politics with grown ups. These are personal choices, and to stay they must be a priority.
I'll need help making the second path to long term teaching. It moves away from the classroom in another direction. Public schools pay and provide benefits for family; my school has small classes. I want all three. Work should provide for my future children's health care. I should teach few enough students to know their personality and their writing. My salary should be high enough to buy a house in the District with the help of a partner. The goals are ambitious: validation of teaching work, balance and patience with myself, and appreciation from my employer. They will require long work with adults, away from children. Making the transition from a consuming commitment in the bakery building to a full life inside and out will allow me to work as a teacher over years. In order to stay teaching I'll make decisions to love and care for myself over my commitment to be at work.