How To Be a Good Citizen
Finally, the promised post (okay, just one) about my brief teaching career.
Eleven years ago, I was looking forward to the summer more than I’d ever had as a child. But this time, I was the teacher. Finishing my first (and as it turned out, only) year as a high school English teacher is still right up there on my list of greatest accomplishments. I’d never worked so hard at a job in my life, and I have the utmost respect for those teachers who give it their all.
After earning a BA from a pricey liberal arts school, working as an underpaid, overeducated high school aide for two years, and finally earning my M.Ed. from another pricey institution, I was a certified high school English teacher. One year later, I was poor and certifiably insane. (Okay, no one ever diagnosed it for realsies.)
Whenever I begin my reply to the question I’m invariably asked — Why did you leave teaching? — I’m often interrupted by a comment on how tough kids are at that age. They assume the little rugrats got the best of me. I think it surprises them to learn that I loved those rugrats. And I loved English. And I even loved teaching (egads). I think I might’ve actually been pretty decent at it, too.
So why did I leave it? Like anything worth expressing, it’s complicated. I guess the best way I can even begin to answer is by sharing this story. I also need to add that I understand now that I expected too much of myself. A perfectionist, I wanted to do the best I could, design the best lessons, give the best writing feedback and in the timeliest fashion, blah, blah, blah. I drove myself a wee bit crazy.
Of my five classes, two were sections of 9th grade college prep and two were the only sections of 10th grade pre-AP. It was made clear to me that my assignment to these AP classes was an honor (no pun intended), especially as a first-year teacher. Truly, it was, as I’d met amazing and intelligent young men and women. I don’t think my colleagues saw that they were also funny, sarcastic, insecure, concerned, and thoughtful. They were not just MCAS and SAT scores, college acceptance letters and future Ivy Leaguers.
It was also clear that these classes, and thus, these students were to be my priority as a teacher. Listen, I love English and obviously believe in the importance of education, but I never for a minute believed that a student’s ability to analyze a scene in Julius Caesar or identify quotes from Death of a Salesmen would somehow alter the universe. I mean, I love my stuff, but c’mon now.
Thanks to the powers of facebook, I’ve reconnected with many of my AP-ers. They are successful adult professionals. But they are also moms and dads, husbands and wives, friends and colleagues. They’ve challenged themselves and worked their asses off — not just in my class, but in every aspect of their lives — and deserve every success. You guys rock (ahem, if any of you actually read this).
But here’s the thing: my 9th graders rocked, too. Did they all work hard in my class? No. Did they all do their homework? Nope. Did they enthusiastically engage in discussions at all times? Uh, no. But did I give as much to them as I did to my 10th graders? I can only hope so. Let me offer a little perspective: we’re talking about 14- and 15-year-olds here.
One day a colleague gave me some advice: They’re [the 9th graders] going to be good citizens, but…. The exact wording of the rest of this sentence is hazy to me now, but that first part has stuck. The advice clarified that I needed to put more of my effort into my 10th grade classes. My 9th graders? They were going to be good citizens, implying, of course that they wouldn’t be as good as my 10th graders. That being a good citizen is being mediocre. That being the best citizen is to be academically, and by extension, professionally successful. Again, we’re talking about 14-year-olds. What the?!
I was livid. But at the time, I was too weak to say anything in return. I was too young, inexperienced, and fearful.
So let me tell you about one of these good citizens.
As a fourteen-year-old boy, he was smart and silly. Charming and frustrating. He didn’t work to his potential. I know he passed my class, but he didn’t earn the A’s he could have (you know, if he applied himself). Sound familiar? If I remember correctly, he earned grades from every letter of the alphabet and regularly forgot his homework. He got in trouble, often for stupid stuff and often with the same friend. Don’t ask me how I remember this stuff; I just do.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about him as an adult. He earned his BA in graphic design, has been working in his field since graduation, and was awarded Corporate Marketing Employee of the Year at his company. In middle school, he began volunteering with the Family & Youth Services in his area; he continued to do so into his adult life.
How do I know this? Because through facebook, he contacted me to ask me to review his writing pieces for his application to a postbaccalaurate premedical program. He wants to pursue his dream of becoming a physician. Apparently he’d always wanted to be a physican but struggled in school. (Aha!) As an adult, he’s learned about himself, his learning style, his strengths and weaknesses. As an adult, he’s gained the confidence to do this and is taking the steps to achieve his goal.
A few days ago, I learned that he’s heading to New York soon to begin his pre-med program at NYU. That’s right; he was accepted.
And I thought he “just” wanted to be a good citizen.
Good citizen, indeed.
I should be lucky enough to raise such a citizen.