The Highlight

The prompt for the opening of our last staff meeting said, “Share a highlight from the first week of school. What has made you smile?” Such was the agenda below that we had to forego this item. Just as well—I would have taken up too much time, fumbling for words, saying too much of nothing at all.

First, I’d thought I would say it was my new classroom, big, beautiful, comfortable, almost like home. It has many books and supplies, a desk with the silhouette of the Manhattan skyline, a refrigerator, a microwave, and a coffee maker, for which a student in my family group who works at Starbucks has pledged to bring his weekly ration of coffee. Two of my uncles’ paintings hang in the classroom, the one over the bookshelves of a young woman reading a book. Since these belong to a series the rest of which decorate the walls of the living room in our home, the classroom now feels like its extension. A banner of red and blue letters across the giant blackboard for which we have no practical use reads America Is… Since chalk is a thing of the past, this board will host collages depicting America as students see it, the first in a series of independent creative projects in my Voices of America class, which I am having a remarkably rich experience teaching, but a great deal of hardship designing—because how does one choose which few voices to teach in a semester maddeningly shortened by holidays, as if it weren’t already an impossibly fleeting time in which to impart even a fraction of the knowledge for which the kids thirst? But back to my classroom—I thought I’d share that I break into a smile every time I walk into the room, even when it is the thirteenth time that day, and that once last week I actually caught myself saying, “Hello, classroom.” Then, I thought that as much as I enjoy having a room almost twice the size of last year’s, with two windows instead of none, and still steps away from a staff bathroom that locks, the highlight would have to be Trisha.

Our first few encounters last year had been tense and mutually unpleasant, each time involving Trisha’s staunch resistance of the notion that a class could take place with a sub or that a teacher on whose roster she didn’t appear could tell her to get off the staircase and go to class. Each encounter had ended with Trisha rolling her eyes, sighing, and saying, “Yo, who is she, though?” I had only taught her for two days when she walked into my classroom with a kid I didn’t know, while I was talking to a colleague during my prep. I wasn’t teaching her class that day, and didn’t expect to see her. She smiled, and said, in a barely audible, atypically meek voice, “Oh, hey, Maryam. I just wanted to get a book. I didn’t get one yesterday.” I was aware. I had worked hard to suggest books that would be comfortable without making her feel that I didn’t think she could choose her own, or read the kinds of books her peers were snatching off the shelves. In the end, she had left the last of the books she had been perusing scattered across the table, and walked away with none. Now, she quickly found one of the books we had looked at together, and asked where she could sign it out. Then, she thanked me and left, book against her chest. Three days later, I smile every time I find myself wondering what made her come back, what has so changed her, whether I will soon discover that she hasn’t changed after all.

But if I talked about Trisha, then there would be no time to mention the Friday when our students rotated from room to room, sampling each of the fifteen electives we are offering this year. Each teacher was assigned to a group of about twenty students, and together we traveled from one classroom to another, once to the cafeteria, and once to the martial arts studio down the block from the school. We listened to a live band comprised of the four musicians who will be teaching the band class. We learned self-defense techniques in Jujitsu. We sang in inspirational choir, and learned about beats and rhythms in music production class. We were moved to our very core in three spoken and performance poetry classes, and we learned to breathe, stretch, and relax in yoga. The students teased that I was more excited than they were, and that was saying a lot because they were more excited than I had ever seen them. And who wouldn’t be, when in most schools electives mean a handful of classes that don’t culminate in Regents, and end up looking more like study hall than anything a kid would ever choose. For the first time in a long time, I wished I were a kid, and that, too, made me smile.

One day this week, I had to interview eight students back to back to fill the remaining spots in my family group before our new students begin classes next week. It was exhausting, and as hard as I tried immediately afterwards to retain the image and story of each kid, they meshed and blurred, together telling one story of lost opportunity, broken promises, shattered homes, and bold, unrelenting hope. One young woman shared that she was now in her seventh home, each with its own parents. I had to find my breath again, when I realized that she had moved more times in her short life than I have in almost four decades, and that I didn’t have to leave my grandmother’s home until I was too old. It was one of those moments when an encounter with a student leaves you humbled, silenced by the depth of the tragedy before you, incredibly small in the face of gargantuan injustices about which you can do nothing but notice and spend a lifetime fighting them, much the same way a hummingbird might attempt to extinguish a forest fire. One drop at a time, I remind myself, as I sit across from this young woman with a soul three thousand years old. I ask her how she is. “I am okay. Now, I’m okay,” she says, “I just wanna learn, you feel me? I really wanna come to this school.” She is smiling like she has never known a care. What power this is. What grace. For as long as she is here, I can give her a family, and because it will be a true family, she will come back to visit many times, for many years. I am shamed that I can’t remember her name, but several times a day, there is her face, right before me, that smile that says, “I am here.” Enough drops make an ocean.

Many times in the first short weeks of school, I have smiled and laughed with colleagues in their and my classrooms, in hallways and on staircases, in the elevator, and by the copy machine. (Although if truth be told, most of the encounters at the latter tended to be much more enraging than endearing.) I haven’t seen anyone teach yet, but have had many talks with colleagues–about the kids, all the ideas fluttering around our heads, the ways we will do things this time, now that we’re standing a year more firmly on teaching grounds. I was happy each time a colleague stopped by to say hello, and when we all sat around the table in my room to talk and plan. On Tuesday afternoon, about fifteen minutes after the last class had ended, sending us off for one of two weekends in a week, five teachers came by my room. We talked and laughed, and I felt fortunate to be among them. We were six teachers in a classroom, and it was beautiful.

I‘ve taken up too much time, fumbling for words, saying too much of nothing at all. All this to share that being a teacher—all of what it means and all of what it entails—is the highlight.

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