Steps on a Journey, III

On Tuesday around lunch time, I stopped by to see my friend Ms. H, who will be retiring at the end of the school year.  “I just learned something sad,” she told me.  She’d gone over to the little grill restaurant near the school for a glass of iced tea, only to find it closed, with a wreath on the door.  Apparently the owner – a man we both knew, whose son graduated from our school a few years ago – had died unexpectedly over the holiday weekend.  “Please tell me,” I asked her, “when you find out about the arrangements.”  And I know she will, because community is important to Ms. H.  So is family; so is caring for others.

I barely saw Ms. H on Wednesday, but I thought of her as I looked at the community and the place of care that the Latin Family has somehow built, despite the odds, this year.  I thought of her as B and M asked for relationship advice (“He clearly likes you,” I said, “but he’s scared.  Also, he’s a guy!”) and as O, B, and Y celebrated the progress they could clearly see as they finished their exams.  I thought of her as I helped a friend with a crisis and listened, unable to do anything but listen, to news of another friend’s situation.  I didn’t see Ms. X or Mr. Y at all, but I have a feeling they were fretfully enjoying having “too much to do” and stressing out over worksheet packets and “bad, lazy students” who refused to do them.

Ms. H is planning to retire at the end of the school year.  When we talk, she’s always stressed too, overwhelmed by the responsibilities of her job, the deadlines, the constant requests for More and More.  But Ms. H, unlike some retirees I know, and in total contrast with Ms. X and Mr. Y, isn’t running from the pain and difficulties of School As It Is.  She’s running to a new set of adventures and challenges, and I wish her well in this exciting new phase of her life.

It’s a time of transition, of journeys completed and new journeys begun.  My students were upset because Ms. N, one of the performing-arts teachers, just announced she’ll be staying home with her soon-to-be-born child next year.  “Did something happen,” K asked me, “when Mrs. K retired after all those years?  We have had a new teacher every single year since then.”  I considered K’s question for a moment, and I pointed out that Mrs. K, a legend in her field, had left some very big shoes to fill when she retired.  And there’s not a common thread – other than being young and seizing other opportunities that presented themselves – that links the “new teachers every single year.”

But I kept thinking about K’s question.

Wednesday was the first day of final exams, with an oddly altered schedule that gave me exactly 25 minutes – a lunch period – without direct student contact.  It was a long, hot day, and my own children’s schedules made it even longer.  But as I was “watching kids take tests” – “the most tiring thing ever,” as my old friend and colleague M used to say – and then taking a more active role as they moved from Individual Written responses to Collaborative Products and Individual Oral Responses, I kept thinking about K’s question.  It raises deeper issues about the journeys on which we all find ourselves.

When Ms. K became a teacher, “Back In The Day,” the expected pathway was clear.  You’d go to college, get That Degree, possibly substitute-teach for a while, and then land the first teaching position.  If you were “lucky” – or well-connected – you might just get a job at a “nice, good school” with “mostly good kids” and supportive parents, and you’d stay there.  Probably for the magical 30 years until Retirement.  If you weren’t quite that “lucky” – or well-connected – you might start out in an “OK school” or even a “bad school,” but the goals and pathways were similar.  In the end, what beckoned was the relative Nirvana of the “nice, good school” and the shining promise of Retirement.  Ms. K, marrying into the military, took a slightly different path, but in the end, when her husband retired and they returned to her hometown, she got the “nice, good school,” the “mostly good kids,” the supportive parents, and the Retirement.

That was the 20th-century factory-model dream, wasn’t it?  A nice job in a nice, safe organization … with good benefits and a good retirement package.  A nice, safe dream you could get for the low, low price of … what?  For lots of folks who bought into the dream, the price was some dreary years of drudgery in faceless organizations that didn’t value them.  For others, the price was higher – a dream deferred, a sense of life wasted and misspent.  Some drank their troubles away, others chased after “happiness” that came from chemicals, from a shiny new thing, from a shiny new relationship.

And I kept thinking about K’s question – and Debbie’s Google+ comment about what makes a meaningful life:

Something that we are surrounded with is the image of greatness -superstars in the sports world, famous actors and singers, and the computer geeks who make it big without higher education… And we are left thinking that superstardom and being rich is the brass ring that we should all strive for and that anything less is a failure.

If you have been dealt a weak hand, poor family conditions, lack of mental “brilliance” (test scores), or no God-given talent that you are aware of, well, what is the point? And we get the bad and lazy kids and the teachers just doing their job for the paycheque.

We need to be celebrating the great-grandmothers who have lived their living giving and doing for their families; we need to celebrate the little treasures, the epic journeys of the unsung heroes. We need to teach the next generation that EVERYTHING we do is important and that EVERY job is important, valued, and deserves respect.

Yes, Debbie, I agree: everything we do is important, and every job should be valued and respected!  That’s how a joyful community has to work.  But in a factory-world, there’s a hierarchy of respect, value, and status, and it’s clear to everyone where teachers – and other production workers and low-level supervisors – fall in the hierarchy.  Ms. K, Ms. H, so many others, and I have stuck with it, despite those not-so-hidden messages, because we know the real value of what we do, the value our students and their families receive, has nothing to do with that perceived value.  But if you’ve learned the factory-lesson of chasing success, it’s hard to stay in a position where They clearly don’t – can’t – value You.

Is it possible, I wonder, to build a lasting joyful community inside a factory with totally different goals and visions?  Is it possible, and is the effort worth the cost?  In an age of multiple pathways, multiple goals, multiple communities, how do you know when it’s time to make a transition from one to the next?  And how does K’s question connect to all of this?

Published in: on May 30, 2013 at 10:17 am  Comments (1)  

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