Inside Out

This week, my life is turning inside-out and upside-down. I’m viewing my future from a new, uncomfortable perspective.

What is this event that’s triggering such a torrent of emotion? My son is starting kindergarten. In three days, I’ll be depositing him in his new classroom, leaving him in the hands of a stranger. A kind, compassionate stranger with both a degree in and experience in special education — but still, to my anxious mother’s mind, a stranger.

I taught in Anchorage, Alaska for five years, three of which were in second grade. Each fall,  particularly in second grade, I watched with tactfully-hidden amusement as the parents lingered next to their little ones’ desks — giving one last hug three times, snapping photos, checking to see that supplies fit into desks. I bit my tongue to keep from telling them, Just go! They’ll be fine! I kept my amusement to myself and refrained from giving advice, knowing (in theory) how hard it is to walk away from our little ones. After my son was born, I had a bit more understanding of what it was like to leave a beloved child with someone else. But then, he was just a baby, his personality undeveloped, and our babysitter quickly became like a member of our family. I didn’t have as much difficulty leaving him as these parents did with their children.

Now, as my almost-six-year-old is entering kindergarten, I believe I finally understand what my class’s parents were going through. I think constantly about that moment three days from now, when I’ll walk away from my son and leave him till 2:30 in the afternoon. I’m nervous — terrified, to be honest — for him and for me.

My son is a quirky little boy, with foibles and idiosyncrasies in plenty. He received a  diagnosis of ADHD and began receiving special education services at his preschool in the spring. The diagnosis helps his dad and me understand some of his qualities, and he now takes medication, which makes him both easier to manage and happier. But despite these positive developments, I worry. I worry that someone he encounters won’t recognize or appreciate the curious, bright little boy disguised under his twitchy and excitable exterior. I worry that his teachers won’t be willing to try unusual methods to help him focus, like giving him extra breaks or letting him stand up to work. I worry that his busyness and impulsiveness will alienate both the adults and children at his school and prevent him from making friends.

As a teacher, I knew my own capabilities in the classroom. I knew that I worked well with many “special” kids. I tend to project a gentle, calming atmosphere. Having ADHD myself, I have an inside knowledge of what tends to work for these brains. I’ve put many hours of research into learning about the world of autism. I worked hard to find support for students for whom our regular curriculum wasn’t working. I also knew about the amazing staff in our school, and to whom I could go for advice and support for students that weren’t as easy to help. So from my perspective, I had no doubt that these small ones were going to be in good hands from that first day of school on. I knew their parents would soon relax, as they saw that their children were doing well.

As a parent, though, I find it hard to automatically accept this same knowledge. I’ve met with staff at Niko’s new school; I attended the Kindergarten Roundup with its overwhelming onslaught of information; I met his new teacher at the Open House this past week. All of these encounters were completely positive. I’ve heard rave reviews of the school from adults who have fond memories of attending there as children. Of course, I’ve also seen the excellent ratings available online. Objectively, I know that there’s every reason to trust the teachers and other staff to care for Niko and provide a good atmosphere for his education.

Still, there’s that quiet terror striking into my soul. I’m about to send my son to school. Not for three hours, three or four days a week, as we’ve been doing the past two years of preschool — no, this is the real deal. From 8:00 am to 2:30 pm, five days a week, he’ll be launching into his educational career. For six and a half hours a day, he’ll be out of my reach. He’ll be learning from someone else, subject to another person’s disciplinary methods, and influenced by another person’s opinions and beliefs.  I feel that I’m on the brink of an entry to a new world: the world of parenthood of a school-aged child, that until now I’ve only seen from the outside.

Suddenly, I’m both terrified and humbled. Finally, I know what those parents of my second-graders were feeling. I’m on the other side of the parent-teacher interaction now. It’s my turn to send my little one off into the big world of elementary school, trusting his teachers to support and guide him in ways I can’t do. I only hope I can be as brave as the parents of my second-grade students were each year, as they gave their children encouraging smiles and backed out of the classroom to leave them in my hands. Now it’s my turn to remember: Just go. He’ll be fine. It’s my turn to put on a brave face and an encouraging smile, to walk away, to let him take his first steps to growing up. It’s time to let go.


Operation: Dessert Storm


The Byronic Man

It will be a great day when schools have all the funding they need, and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a new bomber. – bumper sticker.

Excuse me, sir?  Sir?  Would you be interested in some shortbread?  Lemon bar?  The lemon bars are fresh, sir; why, private Williams here got them out of the oven and sprinkled the sugar not 30 minutes ago.  It’s for a good cause.  Sir?

Thank you anyway, sir.  Maybe next time.

Corporal Jackson!  Front and center! What in the hell, I mean what in the holy living hell did you do to this apple pie!?  For God’s sake, son, it’s the all-American dessert!  The Belgians are pounding Twin Falls, Idaho, and you’re giving me apple pie with no crust on top?!  No cross-hatching?!  This is not how to win a war, damn it!  Son, you better get your head in this…

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Why Teach?

Right now I’m a stay-at-home mom. But I’m also a teacher, or was before we moved from Alaska to Oregon and saved so much money on housing that we only slightly miss the absence of my paycheck, and I plan to be again sometime in the next few years. I guess it’s safe to say that I’ll always be a teacher. That’s just who I am. Just ask my 4-year-old. He still wonders where Mommy’s school is, a year and a half after moving away from our home in Anchorage.

 Here is a piece I wrote back in 2010, before Niko was born. It’s an honest look at how it feels to be in the classroom each day with what often feels like very little return – until That Moment. This is why I teach.

Not long ago, a young friend who thinks she wants to teach asked me what it’s really like to be in the classroom. I was honest — maybe too honest. I told her about the long hours of work (50 to 80 per week, in my case), taking only a few short, begrudged, guilt-laden breaks on weekends between bouts of grading and planning. I told her of the frustrations of feeling that the required curriculums and government-mandated tests and paperwork and bureaucracy all combine to make it less likely, rather than more likely, that students will achieve. I added that while I love the teaching part of the day, I spend easily half my time filing paperwork and performing meaningless tasks that have nothing to do with helping my students learn.

“Is it actually worth it?” she wondered. I had just finished my first week back after a wonderful summer, and I hadn’t met my students yet, so my response reflected my own doubt as I assured her that yes, indeed, it is. Really. Truly. Pinkie swear.

And it is. Sure. There are wonderful, delightful, fulfilling moments in every day. There are the spontaneous hugs for no apparent reason – even in fifth grade, where I spent two years, but especially in second grade. There are priceless comments, questions, and observations from these young minds for which I can take no credit, but still gain enjoyment from. That look of wonder — “You really think that about me?” when I pleaded with a boy to take the test for our gifted program: a boy who suffered from ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, and genius. The look of amazed joy on his face when he qualified, as I knew he would, and the change in his attitude afterward. The dawning light on a little face when for the first time they glimpse the myriad shifting patterns in a simple addition/subtraction grid. A class of students which, when I gave them half an hour of free art time at the end of the day because I Needed Some Time (I’m not ashamed to admit it) to finish entering some data before the deadline clubbed me over the head, spent their own gift of time making me adorable, crumpled, painstakingly scrawled cards and gifts. Yes, it is worth it. Sometimes it’s hard to remember, but it is.

More recently, another friend who is in the first stages of UAA’s education program appealed to me for a little help finishing a paper with a specific page requirement. The topic, naturally, was “Why Do I Want to Be a Teacher?” I gave her some worthwhile advice: Try adjusting the margins and the font just a teeny, itty-bitty bit – just not enough to attract notice and inspire your professor to check the paper’s settings. That could buy you a little space. Try plugging in a couple of stories in the intro and referring to them in the conclusion. That’ll give you at least another half-page, maybe a whole page… And as I gave her this highly valuable advice (and I hope she remembers it, because it’s gotten me A’s on many a paper), I wondered what on earth was wrong with me. Of course, I couldn’t tell her why she wanted to be a teacher — only she could do that. But couldn’t I at least have shared with her some of my own triumphs and joys? Maybe given her a little glimpse of the inspiration that keeps me going? Because I do love teaching. And it is worth it. Really. Come on, it is.

By the way, I hope she keeps that essay. I hope she saves it on every computer she encounters, on flash drives, external hard drives, discs, the Cloud, and whatever method of saving data the future brings. I hope she prints it and frames it and hangs it where she has to see it every day. For two reasons. First, she will be submitting that same essay so many times she will feel like she is vomiting her words onto a screen repeatedly. I guarantee she will need that essay at least five times over the course of her college education and even more times throughout her career. Secondly, and more seriously, there are moments when you wonder: Why am I doing this? And the reminder that there was once a younger, more energetic, more eager you, whose ideals had not yet begun to tarnish, is invaluable. There will be days that she will absolutely need that reminder. Days at the end of an 80-hour work week when the weekend looms ahead of you menacingly, beckoning you to try to Do Everything I Didn’t Get Done This Week: go ahead, try it, I dare you…Mwahahaha. Moments when you read articles labeling teachers as lazy and greedy and you want to cry, knowing how much time and energy and love you give these children and how unlikely it is that these authors will ever have any comprehension of what you do. Meetings with parents who think you aren’t doing enough to keep their underachieving child challenged, who can’t understand that you can’t excuse a child from regular classroom work because it’s “too easy” when you have seen no actual evidence of his ease at completing the work, meetings that conclude with the assurance that you are indeed lazy and greedy. Yes, she should keep that essay. She’ll need it.

I’ve been thinking about these two friends and wishing I had expressed more sincerity in my promises that “it’s worth it.” Wondering if I’m getting burned out without realizing it. Longing for that old feeling of apprehensive self-assuredness I once had: “I’m going to change the face of teaching. I don’t know how, but I will. I’ll be different.”

And then, yesterday, I gave a spelling test to my second-graders. I reminded them of the importance of Being Silent During Tests. I assured them that if anyone was unable to remember this, I would help them by Taking Away Their Test. And then I gave the first word: fox. Papers rustled, pencils scratched, desks squeaked as the little fingers busily and proudly wrote the word. In the midst of this busy silence, a voice erupted: “Mrs. Malapanis! Mrs. Malapanis! I wrote the spelling word! I wrote fox!”

Heads turned, eyes looked accusingly at this child whose face was a beacon of hope, joy, and pride. Her smile glowed like a lighthouse’s flame. Faces turned back to me as they waited expectantly for me to Take Away Her Test. But all I could do was smile mistily back at her and say, “Oh, sweetie, I am so proud of you. Let me see.” And she had indeed written fox — a word that any second grader, most first graders, many kindergarteners, and I dare say a few preschoolers could have written. I hugged her as I once again assured her how happy I was at her accomplishment.  And I did not Take Her Test Away. Because this child had come to me six weeks previously unable to identify the letters in her own name. She had had no idea that groups of letters separated by spaces were words. She hadn’t known that we read and write words moving across the page from left to right. This little girl had barely been able to hold a book correctly. But today, she wrote fox. All on her own. She heard the word, recalled the letters that made the sounds, wrote them, and read the word she’d written. She had an epiphany. When you’re having an epiphany, the threat of Having Your Test Taken Away is as nothing. She wrote a word and she wanted the world to know.

And her teacher was having an epiphany at the same time.

Yes, it is worth it. Nothing will ever take away the joy of that moment.  It’s worth it. Thanks to that little girl, I finally remembered why I’m doing this.  She is the reason that I Want To Be a Teacher.