Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Case for Vulnerability

Well, I ran out of tomorrows. I knew it would happen & it did & it gutted me. See you tomorrow. See you tomorrow. See you tomorrow. See you tomorrow. Every time I said it last Thursday it caught in my throat, & then Friday came & went because, to quote Stephen King from The Green Mile, Time takes it all, whether you want it to or not. Time, while I should relish its consistency because I crave consistency, seemed especially cruel Friday. 

I'll begin with some pictures from last Monday morning's Senior Chapel.

This, below, is Anna. It's funny because I remember when she was born & now she's this fully grown young woman who makes me reevaluate myself - my wardrobe, my hair, my makeup, my attitude, my penchant for cutting sarcasm. She's as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside & has a better head on her shoulders at eighteen than many who walk around erroneously labeled "adults."

I've known Anna's parents for a long time. Her dad taught me when I was younger than she is now; he punished me more than once because I ran my mouth in his class. Each & every time I absolutely deserved the punishment, & a funny thing happened when my parents found out he'd punished me: they applauded him.

I like to think I possess a smidgen of self-awareness, but I was caught off guard by a conversation I had with her father, my former teacher/disciplinarian, a week or so ago. He said, "Anna tells me you get along well with so-&-so." I replied in the affirmative. Then he proceeded to tell me that he isn't surprised, that, having known me twenty years ago when I was so-&-so's age, I was a little bit like so-&-so. I couldn't deny what he said & spent the rest of the day thinking about why that hadn't occurred to me. Were I a cartoon character there would've been a lightbulb over my head for several hours. 

This is Faith. Fun story about Faith. On occasion someone would come over the intercom during English class inquiring about Faith's presence in my room, alerting us to the office's need for her to pay them a visit. The request would typically go like this: Mrs. Zeigler, do you have Faith? Every time, every time, I found myself wishing, as I so often do, that my life was a musical & the students in my AP class would jump out of their desks & break into a well-choreographed sing-along of George Michael's Faith

Below, three of my favorite things about Senior Chapel: Luke, Whitlie, & Whitlie's pink pantsuit. So much win. Luke is like me in that sometimes he gets frustrated & just says every last thing on his mind & it is as awesome as you might imagine. Luke & I are considering conducting a joint seminar titled: Repressing Your Feelings: Not good! 

Luke is staying close to home for college. This brings me a measure of comfort & great hope I'll be in the middle of a riveting lecture next year & see his face framed in my classroom door. 

Below, sisters Millie & Foram. I taught both of them this past year. They are as brilliant as they are beautiful, &, praise the Lord!, Foram is a junior & will be with me again next year. The eight juniors I taught this year are now the collective thread tethering me to emotional stability at school; Foram is one of those eight.

This is Jack. I'm not emotionally prepared to talk about Jack so I'm going with, This is Jack. One day I'll tell you a fun story about us weeping. 

After Monday morning's chapel the seniors scattered to the wind, which meant no one would be making an appearance in my classroom until seventh hour when the juniors show up. I arranged for Trey to come to the school to eat lunch with Reagan, which meant he could dose her insulin for lunch & I could go watch a couple of seniors play in the state tennis tournament. The weather was absolutely perfect. After the tennis I ate lunch with some of my favorite people. You notice I skipped over the part where they both lost their match, but in a year or five years or ten years I won't remember that. I'll remember a rare Monday lunch out with them & the pancakes & coffee I had while looking at their faces & memorizing their smiles, all the while about to burst from the myriad of feelings inside me.

Tuesday, Wednesday, & Thursday unfolded as they usually do, & I was so thankful for that. The anomaly of Monday was nice, but I wanted a few more days of the schedule & the faces & the smiles I'd come to depend on before Friday dawned. 

On Thursday I recall telling a student he, "spends too much time in his head." Later that night I remembered my words when I was so lost in a maze of my own thoughts the kids had probably yelled at me for ten minutes before their voices registered. I've been in my head a lot these last few days. Friday unfolded as I expected, with a noted exception. Due to an early morning breakfast they cooked in the parking lot that spilled over into first hour, my first hour class didn't really assemble Friday morning. Second & third hours were not solid shows either. The seniors had forms that required a variety of signatures & other details to attend to, so I was fine with them coming & going. I saw each student at varying times & said many goodbyes, but we were not together as a class, & it admittedly bothered me. 

When fourth hour arrived, I realized it bothered me for the same reason it bothers a mother when there's an important occasion & one of her children is missing from the dinner table. I wanted one more day of our routine with everyone present & in their place. When the fourth hour tardy bell rang, I shut my door & looked around & almost burst into tears right then. All fifteen of them were there, my lovely AP students, in their seats. It satisfied something in me I can't even put into words. I just wanted to see it one last time. If you're curious, yes, I am crying as I type. I considered not blogging today, or attempting to blog about something else, but the thing about writing is that it's nearly impossible to do it & avoid the thing about which you need to write. 

I watched & listened to them for a little while. We took some pictures. 

This is Sarah. I love Sarah so much I'm going to post this picture of us despite the fact I look pregnant—which. I. am. not.—in this shirt from Target I once thought was pretty great but that's now likely headed to the Goodwill pile. I guess I need a T-shirt that just says, I am not pregnant; I do have a waist

Oh, also, I'm not a giant either but Sarah is one of those tiny women you just hate because they're so tiny. Actually every female in my AP class falls in that category; they're smart & beautiful & also track stars & cheerleaders & ballerinas but you can't hate them because they're also kind. Sigh. 

When it was nearing time for the final bell, I gave them all one last order, forcing them to stand & obey various other commands until we were close enough to be photographed. 

Due to spring sports, these past few weeks rare have been the days we were not missing at least one student, but this is all sixteen of us. The hours I shared with this group of young people were wonderful. The fifteen of them have spent the last nine months shattering any preconceived notions I had about teenagers. My heart hurts knowing our time together is over. 

My only saving grace on Friday was that we'll be together tomorrow night for one last hoorah before they take their AP Exam on Wednesday. I was able to say, as I have every Friday for months, See you Monday. No, it won't be in my classroom. That chapter of my life & of their lives is over. I am so pleased I forced them to get out of their desks & take this picture on our last day together. It'll be on my wall in my sightline for a long, long time. 

I can't talk at length about the gentlemen in purple to my left & to my right; they might hate me for gushing in such a public way. I'd end up ugly crying (again) & wouldn't be able to finish this blog or tend to any of the other things that have to get done today. I will say that if you know me, you know of my love for LSU football; in a few short months a few more pieces of my heart will be in Baton Rouge . . . hopefully performing with more consistency & disappointing me less often than LSU football. As is the case with my beloved Tigers, I will lovingly criticize when necessary, I will offer unsolicited advice, I will silence doubters with harsh words, & I will always be in your corner even if you doggedly run the ball despite going three & out repeatedly. 

In Austen's Sense and Sensibility Marianne has this great line about disposition: It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy; it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others. Never doubt the life-affirming power of discovering those with whom you share a disposition. 

I'll shut-up now before this becomes the equivalent of a baby-picture-montage-weepy-mom-Facebook post. 

The bell that signaled the end of fourth hour on Friday dealt a loud, piercing blow. Sniffling gave way to weeping. After I hugged & eventually released the last student & he walked through my door, I found myself alone in my room. I looked at the picture above on my phone & immediately realized we're standing underneath a poster of the Gatsby book cover. Isn't that the most AP-English thing ever?

On that green laminated piece of paper next to the poster is the opening line of The Great Gatsby which reads, In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

I drove home from school Friday with a heavy heart. I decided instead of sitting around looking at the pictures people were posting & crying, I'd take Reagan to the baseball game at the school Friday night. Reagan played with her cousins who were also at the game while I took pictures with students so I could look at them later & cry. My original plan for emotional stability via escapism was thwarted because so many of my students were at the game, but I still think it was healthier than scrolling through Instagram & weeping in my darkened bedroom. 

This below is me with John Mark, Mary Claire, & Matt. Theirs are some of the aforementioned faces present during my sentimental pancake lunch on Monday. I ugly-cried with each of them on Friday afternoon. They were so unfazed by my ridiculous display they still wanted to take a picture with me Friday evening. When someone snots on your shoulder & you still run to them, smiling & requesting pictures, bonds are cemented. 

I felt deeply human Friday. I felt vulnerable. The C.S. Lewis quote above was in my head all day. This is the full quote, taken from The Four Loves:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable. 

Ah. Of course. Friday my heart was wrung; it's still sore. I don't regret giving it away, though. I've never said, I should have been more selfish in my dealings with that student, or I regret the time I spent listening to him. They penetrated my heart months ago. I think it happened at least in part because I did not expect it at all & thus had zero defenses prepared. I didn't think they'd be so charming, so interesting, so absolutely lovable. I certainly never expected to weep when they left me. All you hear about teenagers are horror stories. I have several regrets when it comes to curriculum; I have zero when it comes to the tears I shed Friday.

As suggested by the opening line of Gatsby that I quoted above, vulnerability is often associated with youth. Vulnerable has a variety of connotations, but in the sense that it means opening your heart to others, as suggested by Lewis, it's a state we ought to strive for at any age. To love at all is to be vulnerable

Below are excerpts from some of the seniors' final journal entires as well as from notes I was given. It's funny how life works; you're paid to help students develop their writing skills, & then their last act as your student is to leave you a note that squeezes your heart & claims what remains of your mascara, an act of emotional terrorism, a bomb left atop piles of paperwork on your desk. You sit at your desk, shaky hands holding tear-stained pages, & you think, I fold. You win. Your words are the best, most perfect words. 

Thank you for being an awesome teacher. I have never wanted the school year to keep going until this year.

Thank you for everything you have done for me.

You honestly made me more passionate about literature and writing. I love your love for us and for beautiful literature.

You instilled in me the confidence I needed to get through the pressures of this year.

At times over these last few days I've felt a little silly what with all the crying. It feels like grief, & that's because it is grief. One student helped me see this: I will still see some of them on occasion (I better see you!) & remain in contact with some of them, but we are all saying goodbye to the life we've led this past year; these students are saying goodbye to the life they've led since they began school some fourteen years ago. We are grieving the loss of the comfort of routine, & we feel, well, vulnerable. That I was a part of their routine, that they loved the comfort of the four walls of my classroom, makes me smile through the tears.

As you know, I've read the Harry Potter series. As you know, I love it. While I am firmly grounded in reality, I do believe magic sometimes happens inside a classroom. The high school classroom in particular is a unique opportunity to impact the lives of young people, & I'll tell you that if your only focus is your subject matter, no one's going to cry or leave you notes when they walk away from your classroom for good.

In hindsight I realize how vulnerable I was when I walked in my classroom last August. Had I been more sure of myself, of my ability to teach high school English while parenting two small, demanding, kids, had I kept a mask in place as I admittedly often did when I taught at the community college, Friday likely would've been a ho-hum day for me. I'm glad I had a reason to cry Friday. I'm glad I shed the mask early, got my hands dirty, & opened my heart to students. If I'd had any doubts about the way I conducted myself during the year, they were allayed Friday.

I've avoided this as long as possible, but I can no longer avoid it now. I'm going to close with a snippet of the "For Good" lyrics from the Wicked soundtrack because they contain so many similes & are just too perfect.

I've heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason 
Bringing something we must learn 
And we are led 
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don't know if I believe that's true
But I know I'm who I am today 
Because I knew you

Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun 
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood 
Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But because I knew you 
I have been changed for good 

It well may be 
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part 
So much of me 
Is made of what I learned from you
You'll be with me 
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have rewritten mine
By being my friend 

Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a skybird
In a distant wood 
Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good 

Teachers, you rewrite the stories of the young people with whom you come in contact; do what you can to improve their story rather than editing it to add yet another villain. If you let them, if you open your heart & listen to them & bring them cookies & pay attention when they're crying (literally or metaphorically), they may just rewrite your story as well. Make room in the classroom for some vulnerability, theirs as well as your own.


1 comment:

  1. Wow...Thank you for showing me a perspective I have never seen. How scary to think that I am going to be of those leaving next year! You have encouraged not only me but so many of your students to be confident in what we do & who we are. Thank you for sharing your heart. You are so loved Mrs. Zeigler! - Katie Hall