When I was a kid, my sister, our neighborhood friends, and I would play school. It was one of our favorite games. We’d assemble in the basement of one of our homes, and we’d transform it into a schoolhouse, complete with classrooms, library, teachers’ lounge, and principal’s office. I always wanted to be the teacher. There was something magical about filling out hall passes on scraps of paper, writing with chalk – all different colors – on a chalkboard, fingers coated with chalk dust, standing up in front of my “students” and teaching. For years, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d always answer that I wanted to be a teacher. I was in awe of my own teachers; in my eyes, they were superhuman; they could do no wrong. I wanted to be just like them.
As I grew older, I wavered. Born with wanderlust, fascinated with airports (I loved watching people, wondering where they were going or where they’d been, surreptitiously spying joyful reunions or tearful partings, secretly weaving dramatic stories about all of them), attracted by the glamour of travel (air travel was something special then; people dressed to the nines when they travelled, and it was an exciting and dazzling and euphoric spectacle to behold), I decided that I wanted to be a flight attendant. But, alas, I was too short: I didn’t meet the airlines’ height requirements, and I didn’t have much hope of growing any taller. That dreamed dashed, I fancied myself becoming a writer with my great American novel topping the bestseller list or my columns syndicated across the country; maybe I’d even win a Pulitzer. Or, maybe, instead, I’d become a translator at the United Nations or a professional golfer or a chef. Then, I wanted to be a doctor. I was sure I was destined to discover a cure for cancer. That, or I’d deliver a bazillion babies. Noble and ambitious, yes. But the sight of blood made me squeamish, and the smell of formaldehyde in my high school Biology class just about did me in, so I reasoned that becoming a doctor was probably not for me: after all, I couldn’t go through med school with my nose plugged, and I surely couldn’t make rounds and treat patients and deliver babies without seeing blood.
After I spent a tantalizing summer studying Italian in Italy and traipsing all over that breath-taking boot – that boot that left indelible footprints on my heart and soul – my wanderlust rekindled, and I came home determined to travel the world. At the end of my senior year of high school, with my college plans in the balance, I decided to enroll in travel school. Still too short to be a flight attendant, I knew there was no height requirement to be an airline reservationist or to attend the airport ticket counter or to be a travel agent. So, I spent the next twenty-two years working as a travel agent and wandering the world. Travel was good to me. Very, very good to me. I loved it, and I probably would still be in the travel business today were it not for the events of September 11, 2001. That day, travel changed for me, forever.
It was then that I decided to go back to school to finish my degree and to get my teaching license. So, at the tender age of 45, I became a rookie teacher, teaching high school English. That was seven years ago, and today, I sent my latest crop of students off on their summer vacation. It’s been an exhilarating seven years: I’ve learned so much; I’ve experienced incredible highs and devastating lows. I’ve seen the lightbulbs go off in students’ faces as they finally get it, and I’ve stared helplessly at a sea of bored, expressionless, glazed-over eyes. I’ve never worked harder in my life. I don’t have a chalkboard like I did in the basement so many years ago; I have a whiteboard instead. Writing hall passes doesn’t seem quite as magical now. But teaching! Teaching is incredible. I think I was born to do this. I think my young self sensed it, too.
Today marks the end of my seventh year of teaching, and this has been my roughest year yet. Faced with having to do more with less, to being forced to sacrifice time teaching and learning to instead prepare for and administer standarized tests, to dealing with student apathy and entitlement and bullying, to being asked to increase academic rigor while at the same time to decrease student stress, to stepping gingerly to avoid getting caught up in personal and petty drama among colleagues, to spending countless hours and endless in-service meetings trying to understand unreasonable, ever-changing, mean-spirited, and politically-motivated education legislation passed by dim-witted politicians who have never been educators – legislation that directly affects me as a teacher as well as my current and future livelihood, not to mention the academic welfare of my current and future students, it’s been a rough year.
This evening, as I sit on my patio, feeling the adrenalin letdown of this last day of the school year, I also feel the itch. It’s been seven years; maybe it’s the seven-year itch. Maybe it’s an inkling that something is amiss. Maybe I’m not meant for this. It’s too tough. It’s too demanding. It’s too, too, too. No. It’s the itch to start planning for next year. It’s the itch to make next year better than this year.
It’s the itch to make a difference in at least one student’s life.
It may be summer. Indeed, it may be the first day of summer. But, I am, and I think I have always been, a teacher.