Monday, May 18, 2009
A Day In The Life
The alarm buzzes, faint and far away in the clouds of sleep. Stone stirs at the foot of my bed, stretching across the floor like a cat, his nails catching in the carpet. I slam my hand on the top of the green, glowing clock and go back to sleep.
I hit the clock for the final time, silencing it permanently. I pad to the kitchen with Stone right behind me. I prepare his breakfast and take him to the backyard to eat. I can taste spring in the air; there is a light wind and the faint smell of smoke from a brush fire in Santa Barbara sixty miles north of Los Angeles. I begin going over my day in my mind: first period, poetry; second period, Skellig; third period, final review for the AP exam; fourth period, an essay; fifth period, back to the ninth graders and Skellig; sixth period, back to the eleventh graders with AP preparation; meeting after school with the English department.
Breakfast and medicines finished while standing at the kitchen sink. Now for the coffee, lots of coffee. I sit in the living room going over newspapers and magazines looking for something to use in my classes that day. I skim over the day’s readings for each class. Before I realize what I am doing, I doze off for a few minutes.
In the shower, comb the hair, brush the teeth, have to remember to remind seniors to review lit terms for the exam. I dress quickly, usher Stone out into the backyard, and I am out the door.
Today, it’s my wife’s turn to drive. We teach at the same school in the same department. She has college preparatory classes in English for grades nine through twelve; I have the honors and Advanced Placement courses for the same grades. Out of the twenty-two years we have been teachers, we have taught in the same school for seventeen years. It is a convenient arrangement, but it also leads us to talk too much about work at home. It is okay, though, because this is what we were both called to do. Neither one of us wants to be anywhere else.
We ride the elevator to the second floor and open our classrooms. I allow the students to enter while I walk across the hall to the faculty room to put my lunch in the refrigerator, check my mailbox, and greet other teachers. In truth, I do very little greeting; I am a notorious night owl, and mornings are a real effort. My objective is to get coffee and just listen. I need to save my energy for first period and my English honors course for sophomores.
In the faculty room, the teachers are talking animatedly about the upcoming teachers’ evaluations by students. It is the first time this has been done in the school, and everyone is a little nervous about what middle and high schoolers might say about their teachers. Grades came out last week, so students may be primed for revenge. I grab my coffee and head back to the classroom.
The sophomores settle down to business, I have taken roll, made the perfunctory announcements about the day ahead, and it is time for Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” We read the poem through and then begin a close analysis. The end of the day, a pastoral scene, and the speaker watches the sun go down from a grave stone in the cemetery. No more shall the dead return to life, to kiss their children, to gather around the hearth. “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” I do not want my students to see this as just another poem about death, but how do I get fifteen year olds to appreciate loss and missing someone’s presence. “One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill.” At fifteen, we believe we will live forever. I read somewhere that poetry is written for the young, but by the time they come to understand, they are too old to change their lives. Several of my students do understand; they have buried close relatives. The others are blissfully in the dark; this is just another poem to read for class, another assignment to complete.
Sophomores leave and the freshmen file in. We are reading Skellig by David Almond. “Blackbird singing in the dead of night, / Take these broken wings and learn to fly. / All your life, / You were only waiting for this moment to arise.” Young Michael sees blackbirds everywhere. He and his new friend, Mina, must help the winged creature they have found in the dilapidated garage. Meanwhile, Michael’s newborn sister is dying of a heart ailment.
Like the best of young adult literature, this book is so poetically written and filled with such wisdom and grace. Mina, home-schooled and obsessed with British poet William Blake, councils Michael to accept things are not what they appear to be, and sometimes, the answers are not clear. “We can’t know,” she says. “Sometimes we just have to accept there are things we can’t know. Why is your sister ill? Why did my father die…Sometimes we think we should be able to know everything. But we can’t. We have to allow ourselves to see what there is to see, and we have to imagine.”
My freshmen, on the cusp of the cynical teenage years, still have the essence of innocence about them, but adulthood is closing in fast.
Seniors are already gone. I try to reel them in, pull them back into school. They are thinking of summer, of next year, of moving away from home, of saying goodbye. They are incredibly scared. Exhilarated. Overcome with giddy excitement for the future. We are trying to review for the AP exam, but wind up talking about how life unfolds. A few of them are deeply bitter. They did not get into the schools of their choice. Some will go to community college, and they are embarrassed and disappointed. “Why did I put all this work in?” one wails. “I worked so hard, took honors and AP courses, and now I have to go to community college.”
I try to bolster their sagging emotions. We cannot know how things will turn out. They believe they are destined for a particular college, a specific job, to be doctors and lawyers. What we believe to be our destiny may not match where we end up. “It’s more important, more indicative of a strong character, how you recover from disappointment,” I tell them. “The hard work and struggles are worthless if you learn nothing from them.” I know from my own life experiences that I speak the truth, but to them, I fear my words ring hollow and empty. But their journeys have only just begun and there is so much life to live. The bell rings, interrupting my passionate speech. They file out to nutrition break.
Twenty minutes later, after a quick run to the faculty room, I finish up clearing my desk from the morning detritus and prepare to greet the next class: juniors in AP Language and Composition. They have been snarky lately, mainly because of the intense pressure they are under: SAT tests, AP tests, challenging academic courses in a detrimental year for their futures. They are scared and worried about college applications months before the process even begins. I feel for them.
We argue in class. They want to spend their time prepping for the test. I want to drive them through yet another essay. They want their last test back. I have not begun to grade it yet. Someone forgot his book. Another did not bring the book to school. This class loves to argue and debate, so I push them into the essay. Everyone has an opinion. Many of the essays we are reading in this unit have to do with education. We try to relate the critical views of the essayists to their situation at this school. This causes problems, because we veer away from the writer’s style and begin debating whether we should remodel the school library, or use the funds to give students who cannot pay the tuition a way to stay with a grant. I try to redirect us back on track. As usual, we run out of time before I can bring the discussion to a satisfactory close.
Freshmen come back for more work on the novel. During the class, a message arrives: faculty meeting at lunch in Room 109 regarding the upcoming student evaluations of teachers.
Without time for a break or lunch, we file into the lecture hall. The principal is waiting for us. He tells us that our students will be evaluating our performance in all of our classes next week. The point of this sinks in slowly. We sit in silence. I raise my hand. “What will these evaluations be used for?” I ask. “Teacher retention? Contract negotiations?”
“It’s just another piece of evidence in our on-going self-evaluation,” he says. “You will be evaluating me too; I am on the evaluation block as well.”
“It’s not the same,” I fire back. “You will be evaluated by adults. We are being evaluated by teenagers, some of whom just received deficient grades.”
He has no answer for me other than to “take it with a grain of salt.” Sure.
Back with the juniors working on their AP preparatory workbooks. They are overwhelmed. It takes us almost an entire period to read, parse apart, and come to a clear understanding of a test prompt. Forty-five minutes to do what they must do on the exam in less than five minutes. We are still discussing when the bell rings. We never get to the writing of our responses.
Finally, I can re-organize my desk and plan out my evening’s work during my preparation period. I make lists—department notes for after school, tasks to do at home that night, upcoming dates and deadlines. The final bell for the school day rings, I swig some water, and wait for my teachers to arrive for the meeting.
We discuss the upcoming evaluations I must write about each department member. We go over the book list for next year, eliminating several texts that were underused this year. With the economy the way it is I want to make parents buy books that we will completely use. Several teachers express concern over failing students in their classes. We try to help them, but they turn in blank tests and miss deadlines for papers. What can we do with students who literally do nothing? At least if there is effort, we can work with them. If they continue to be deficient, they will have to attend summer school to make up the class.
The meeting wraps. One of the teachers, my wife, and I stay and continue our discussion about students, the department, the way things are going. We are worried about enrollment due to the economy. There is so much work to still be accomplished before the year ends in six weeks.
I arrive home, change into sweats and take Stone for a walk. I have a headache. I feel like I have been running all day. Mentally, I review the tasks ahead of me tonight to prepare for tomorrow’s classes.
I plan where we will go next in each class. I review the readings for the next day, write a test, and grade three papers. The last is most disheartening. If I only read three papers a night, I will never finish the set. More are coming in next week. I do not know how I can keep up.
No matter what time I shut down the computer, shower and head for bed, it is always after midnight. I turn off the light, stare at the ceiling, and review what I need to do tomorrow. Consciousness fades away, and the night settles in. I reach over and set the alarm for 5:30 AM. Then I am gone, senseless and lost in sleep.