The stench isn't new; for some time now, tension and criticism--both constructive and destructive--have been acquiring their armies, building with each passing day. I've felt it in pockets, here and there, but lately, it feels like its getting heavier. It feels thick and pungent like smoke.
Fear feasts on our toes, impeding our steps with each nagging nibble. Comments carry unintended connotations, questions inspire angst.
Today, when I finally got ahold of someone at the senior center, defensiveness seeped through the phone. Leaking from the mouth of a perfect stranger--a woman I thought would appreciate my call--it gushed directly into my ears.
"Many people don't understand what happens here," she said curtly. "They think the seniors sit around and visit all day long. In reality, they are scheduled for events throughout the day. This is not residential, so when they're here, they are taking yoga, or strength training, for instance. They are busy. If you have students come over during the school day, those seniors are going to be annoyed."
"If you want to send them over at lunch to wander around and see if they can find someone to talk to, then I suppose it might work, but we're only free from 11:30-12:30, so it would have to be during that time."
She left no room for discussion.
"I promise I won't send students over during the school day. I wasn't planning to do that," I tried to assure her. "I think it's great there are so many activities. I was just wondering if you had any leads. I have three students who can't find partners for their project, and I would just like to pair them up with someone who is over 70 years old. Unfortunately, I don't have anyone to match them up with. I was hoping you might have a lead for names of people who might be interested. Then the students can work with the senior to pick a time that works," I explained, a bit flustered by what seemed to be a passive aggressive suggestion that I was under-estimating what the senior center had to offer.
"I think you probably should call a retirement home for that," she instructed me and then she proceeded to list off a dozen different establishments. Returning again to her speech about how busy the seniors were with activities and how little idle time they had, she went on to assure me the nursing home residents were much more sedentary.
Slightly bothered by her unwillingness to help, given the fact that I'm sure there must have been dozens of 70 year old seniors who would have loved to tell their story to a high school student, I remained seated in an agitated state for several long moments.
Then, attempting to follow Atticus Finch's advice, I put myself in her shoes. I put myself in the position of an over-worked person who has budget restrictions, funding threats, and a public perception to manage.
As I sat in her shoes, I realized they weren't much different than my own. Beneath her edgy voice, I recognized fear, a need for validation. And I realized that she, like me, probably has piles of expectations, and gallons of fear.
Her defensiveness was simply survival.
As my day went on, I felt the same emotions well inside me. My students told me they wanted a more creative assignment, so I restructured everything so I could deliver one. I worked hard to teach them tricks of the descriptive trade. I opened up boundaries; I gave them choice.
Some of them seemed excited, but still, the same few who fail to grow excited about anything slouched in their seats and sighed. Their slouches jabbed at my fear, at my defensiveness. Their slouches make me tremble a bit.
I am fully responsible for engaging all of them, for pushing all of them to their potential; if I don't, their failure is mine.
Now, not only is that my personal motto, my personal goal, my muse for rising out of bed in the morning, and staying up late into the night, it is the law.
I work really hard; I tear open my heart and give it to my kids. I don't rely on packaged lessons or pull out binders laden with neatly organized lecture notes. I answer emails from kids late into the night. I give up every free minute I have if a kid needs help. I listen to their fears, to their joys, to their "totally random" stories. I give them practice interviews, I write letters of recommendation, I read their personal writing, I help them with college essays, I volunteer to support their causes.
While no one ever reaches a state of perfection, and each day offers opportunities to grow, just like 99% of the teachers I know, I can say that there are very few minutes each day when I am not doing the very best I can. There are few minutes in the day when I am not thinking about students and what will help them become better people.
But I worry sometimes. I worry in meetings, I worry when I hear the news, I worry when I try and try and try and I still cannot get certain kids excited about school work. I know that is my job, and it is certainly something I strive for, but sometimes it feels like I'm the enemy.
How many adults get excited about going to work? How many adults enthusiastically chose to create spreadsheets instead of hanging out with their family, playing games, watching TV or going out to dinner? How many jump with glee when they must stay up late into the night or work over the weekend on something major and unfamiliar and worth a lot of points?
I'm lucky, because I do. I'm lucky because most of my day is rewarding. Most of my day fills me with purpose. Most of my day is spent in worthy cause. I wouldn't stay if it didn't. But sometimes I have to do things I don't agree with or things I don't like. Sometimes I have to do things that don't engage me or interest me or make me believe in something important.
And sometimes when I'm knee-deep in all of those things, and I still hear that it isn't enough, I feel the gurgle, the bubble, the rising stench of defensiveness eroding the walls within me. And it makes me curl up my nose, clutch my stomach and dig deep to figure out how I can be better. How I can smile when all I want to do is cry.