When my boyfriend and I moved into an apartment together this July, there were several of my wall decorations he had issue with. He wouldn’t let me put up my Gashleycrumb Tinies poster or my 50 Nombres a la Muerte cards in the bedroom. “No death stuff in the place where we sleep,” he insisted. He also flat-out vetoed my teaching collage. “It’s too sad.”
The collage in question is an artistic collection of worksheets, detention slips, student comments, and other items that I put together from my first year of teaching. I taught Algebra I at Abramson High School, a place that doesn’t exist anymore thanks to Hurricane Katrina, but was, at the time, the largest, and arguably the most dysfunctional, high school in the Greater New Orleans area.
During that year, I had a comment box on my desk so that students could tell me what they thought of me and my class. I was trying to encourage expression through words (instead of through angry shouting), and it worked. I have comments on the collage such as “I think your class room stank,” and “Ms. Langston, can you please stop talking so much,” and, my personal favorite, “I wish I had two pairs of hands so I could give you 4 thumbs down.” (That’s a pretty creative way of saying “you suck,” wouldn’t you agree?)
I like the collage. I think it’s funny and heart-breaking and sort of wonderful in it’s own way. It reminds me that I made it through an incredibly difficult year of my life and still retained my sanity and my sense of humor. It reminds me of the kids who made my life hell, but who, despite everything, I still cared so much about.
In case you were unaware, teaching is really hard, whether you’re teaching at a low-income high school with metal detectors and not enough desks or at a small, private school for kids with learning disabilities, or at a mid-sized K-8 parochial school (I’ve tried all three). Every year that I taught, I tried so hard to make math fun and interesting for the kids. I tried to teach them as best I could, but often it seemed like nothing was sinking in. It seemed like they hated math, they hated my class, they sometimes even hated me. It’s a bit disheartening, to say the least.
But a few years ago, I got an email from a former student – a girl I taught my very first year. She said:
Ms. Langston, u help me pass to my 10 grade…back in 04….im 21 now!! and i was just checking if u still remember me
I did remember her, and I was tickled to death by her email. I responded, and she responded back. It’s funny, because looking at the emails now, she never actually said “thank you,” or “you were a good teacher.” But just the fact that she contacted me was enough to make my heart soar. I know it sounds cheesy, but all the hard, overwhelming, thankless days of teaching suddenly seem worth it when you get an email from an old student who says, hey, guess what Ms. Langston, you made a difference, at least to me.
Of course, I’m not teaching any more. Instead I’m focusing my attention on another hard, thankless job: writing. Every day I try so hard to write the very best that I can, and all I get for my efforts are piles of rejection letters and novels that I hate so much I can’t even bear to look at them. Sometimes it seems like I might as well give up. Nobody is encouraging me, certainly nobody is paying me, and it often seems like no one wants to read the things I’ve written.
But then, every now and again, I get an email like the one I received today:
I read one of your pieces on frontporchjournal.com as an assignment for my high school Literary Magazine class. I read “The Cut” and really loved it! I am just starting to get back into writing and I admire this piece a lot. I am currently struggling to battle my shyness and confidence problems so this piece really spoke to me personally. So thank you for writing it! I hope to read many more of your stories. I wish you the very best of luck in your writing career. I look forward to finding your books on the New York Times list and in stores in the future! I’ll keep my eyes out for you! 🙂
Oh, how my heart soared, and suddenly, all the hard, thankless days of writing seemed worth it.
I know that these types of comments are few and far between in the lives of teachers and writers, but they are so powerful they can refuel even the driest of tanks, and keep us running for a long, long time afterwards. So if you have ever had a teacher or an author who inspired you — tell them. Your words will give them wings.
Meanwhile, I am tucking this comment back inside my comment box for safe-keeping. And on a day when I feel like giving up, I will pull it out and remember, yes, there is a reason to keep writing – to keep expressing myself through words (instead of through angry shouting.) After all, this profession of mine can be sad and heart-breaking, but it is also wonderful in its own way.