As a teacher, as someone who has lived according to the academic calendar all her life, I love the fall — the season of new beginnings, of hope. Each new school year is the chance to start again, that clean slate, the opportunity to do it better this time. As a writer, I’m trained to see metaphors, and I do–isn’t that what back-to-school clothes are all about? A new self? And the new pencils, the notebooks, the blank agenda? I love the ritual of it, and I suspect that many others of us do, too. School as theatre, as microcosm of our lives, this small chance over and over again to get it right.
But for some reason, this fall, things feel differently. Instead of hope, increasingly,I feel despair.
Every year, in the fall, my first writing assignment to my dual enrollment English 11 students (it’s a college-level writing course; they receive college credit via a local community college) is a Remembered Event essay, essentially a personal essay that asks students to look back on an event in their life and reflect to make meaning. Often, these are the most poignant essays I read all year — sometimes the most “creative” writing some of these students have ever been asked to do. Often, it is this assignment that helps me discover which non-literary arts students — (at my high school for the arts, students choose “focus areas” or majors when they apply. In addition to dual enrollment English 11, I also teach in the Literary Arts focus area: Fiction I, Fiction II, and the intro class, Creative Writing) — might really love to take creative writing, which dancers or musicians or techies or actors are also secret writers, and many of the essays end up finding their way to college applications. Some of the essays are funny, some are straightforward memories about favorite family vacations, holidays gone awry, little kid mishaps, elementary school blunders — and some, like several that I read this past week, are full of pain and lives so difficult that I don’t know how my students are showing up every day and appearing before me with their smiling faces.
One of the joys of art, of course, is that we can take our ugly life and transform it into a thing of beauty–and some of these kids have done just that. What else is art but a chance to transcend this earthly, imperfect existence, a chance to recreate ourselves, in this case, on the page? Isn’t that what I tell my writing students?
Only this year, this time, instead of that soaring, hopeful you’ve-created-art-feeling, I am fighting, not altogether successfully, the urge to cry.
It’s too much.
Maybe the despair comes alongside the fact that this year, at my school, our take home pay is actually less than last year ($100 a month in my case), and that after 29 years of teaching, my health care is suddenly less good than ever, sadly, and more expensive than ever. We received word of that yesterday — changes because of the Affordable Care Act, we’re told (the irony is not lost on me), changes that left me sitting at my desk feeling the most hopeless I’ve felt in recent memory about the state of public education. Clearly, we teachers are under-valued. Increasingly, public education is about testing, about “standards.” I wish policy makers could come into my classroom and read the essays my students write and then talk about standards. What standard is it that helps a kid get through life with an angry, abusive parent? Or teaches someone how to live with an eating disorder? What is the standard that shows kids how to survive a death? I wish policy makers could read the words my students write and then tell me what test can accurately measure the hope that is left in this world to give them?