A Day in the Life
My work as a high-school educator is intimately connected to my love for and belief in the power of communication.
Let me tell you what a day in my life is like.
Roe-Owens, as a rule, are not good at mornings. Around 6 a.m., we all crawl out of bed like creepy crawlies from under rocks and skulk around the house until somehow miraculously the five of us are loaded into a vehicle. Invariably, as we are high-fiving each other at for once being on time, it comes to light that at least one if not more of the children have overlooked something crucial, typically a coat or backpack. This morning, it was Noah wearing a pair of his little sister’s skinny jeans that sent us back (sometimes, children with autism can struggle with getting dressed).
It’s a long ride to school, time to drink our coffee, a ride peppered with the colorful language of Justin as he interacts with traffic in between updating me on global and national news. I enjoy getting my news through Justin. He’s like Wikipedia, tracing one thing back to another over time.
They drop me off right around 8 at the high school Justin graduated from in 1993. They are living light; they make me so happy. Every single day, I take that last look at them and think about how wonderful the four of them are, Arthur brushing his long, unbearably tangled hair in frustration in the back seat, Noah listening to his Walkman, Lucy waving, bright-eyed, wearing the pink and white fox ears I made her, or today, a pirate’s eye patch.
Back when I was in school, I dreaded walking down the hallway; I felt different, looked awkward and poor even after we weren’t anymore, and I knew it. Back then, there was so much pressure to dress in name brands, to look a certain way. These days, students celebrate their uniqueness; no one dresses alike. I pass signs for Pokemon League, the Christian praise group FUSE, the LGBT group Prism. I pass football players and art kids, the kind I would have hung around with. I hear students speaking Spanish, students freestyle rapping to beats played on a phone, students talking about a geometry exam, students laughing, a group of kids playing Uno. The energy of it and just the pure beauty of the diversity fills me and inspires me.
Sometimes high school can be bananas.
My job is to provide academic support for the Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program through Union High School. One of the ways we help to prevent unplanned pregnancy is by surrounding students with a strong support system, offering them a plan to look forward to and keep them focused on where they want to go rather than simply where they’re at. I have always believed that all people are inherently alike in more ways than we aren’t, and because all thought is filtered through language, harnessing a command of language empowers us to shape our realities and the world around us. I believe the ability to analyze ideas and to communicate effectively is a powerful tool, perhaps even a weapon if needed.
In class, I meet students’ needs on different levels, and each student is a puzzle, less of a diagnosis and a prescription for success and more of a complex algorithm.
Personally, I knew I was a writer from the time I was able to hold a pencil. At the end of first grade, Mrs. Bell gave me a copy of Ramona the Brave, my first chapter book. It was inscribed with a personal note, and I kept it until it fell apart a couple of years ago.
I kept journals prolifically my entire life, and in second grade, I wrote in my journal that I wanted to be an author when I grew up. It was all I ever wanted to be. I read constantly throughout my childhood, got detention for reading Stephen King in my pre-algebra class at Foster Middle School and passing long, thoughtfully penned notes to my best friends in class. Then I failed, of all things, high-school English…twice.
Despite my passion for language and literature, despite my love of writing, I hated school. I was bright, creative, and miserable. Any love I had once had for formal education had been sucked away through the hellscape of middle school, where I was taunted and bullied no more or less than anyone else, but enough that piled on top of the struggles I was living at home, it utterly zapped any value I once placed on school.
All I wanted to do was read and zone out, but instead, each day I found myself facing an onslaught of grammar lessons and journal entries, paperwork to keep track of when I could barely keep track of myself, how I would make it to class without having to face the older boy with the long, frizzy hair who would corner me in the hallway and say things that crept shame into my already disquieted soul. School was not safe, and home was worse. The only place I had left was my thoughts, and here they were forcing pages upon pages of busy work into my mind.
When I failed English the second time, my saving grace was that my mom knew what I was really capable of. She enrolled me in private school for the last year and a half, where I made up both English courses concurrently. The teacher asked me what I wanted to read, and so I gave her a list of dystopian literature: Orwell, Bradbury, Atwood, Huxley. I wrote literary analyses comparing the works and demonstrated my grasp of grammar and language through writing alone. I went on to graduate with a 3.4 GPA and put myself through college and then graduate college in English at NSU.
As I go through my day at the high school, this is never out of my mind. Students are algorithms because they are individuals with complex minds and lives. They are not only students; they are people, human beings with incredibly rich inner lives and thousands of variables to their experience, variables like personal motivations, privilege, barriers, fears. I can never make the mistake of believing what works for one will work for another, and I can never believe that there isn’t a way to finally connect them to that great bounty, the gift of communication.
And so I rely on my own great faith, my communication with them as human beings connecting. I try to see them for who they are, to listen and acknowledge their feelings, a luxury a classroom teacher may not always have simply by the very nature of the system, and so I also try to be a conduit between the teacher and the student, an ambassador of goodwill. Just as we often forget to see the students for the complex humans they are, they often envision their teachers in monolithic terms. I try to help them see beyond the stock characters they create to the humanity behind the desk to help them develop empathy and appreciation for their teachers.
One of the ways I do this is through note writing, and I carry little cards with me. I sometimes write little notes to the students thanking them for their hard work or acknowledging an accomplishment or just telling them how great they are as a human being, and in turn, sometimes they give them to me. Better yet, they will ask me for a card, scribble something into it and slip it onto their teacher’s desk.
I stopped believing in genius a few years back as I began to mature as an educator. I now believe in practice; the more we do something, the better we are at it. Yes, we have inclinations and talents, but to become truly excellent at anything, we have to repeat it over and over, learning from our failures. I try to teach them to see failure as a gift, an opportunity to learn. The best professor I ever had was the one who wrote all over my paper, knocked me down several rungs. We have nothing to learn from those who tell us only what we are doing right.
I also teach studyspo, essentially a love of taking beautiful notes and making the experience enjoyable. This is something I truly wish I had learned at a younger age, but I was so fearful of stepping outside the lines of what was expected that I often found it easier to do nothing than to do things my own way.
Students who are otherwise completely disengaged love taking notes using a variety of highlighters and colored pencils, doodles and sketches and post-it notes. And while the more stoic among us might be tempted to think this might provide too big a distraction, it turns out that the act of writing the material in note form provides as much or more academic benefit as actually studying the notes, so it doesn’t matter if you write in blazing purple glitter ink, which we frequently do.
I think it’s unreasonable to imagine that most adults could survive even a week of high school if put to the test now. It’s a tough thing to sit in class every day for essentially what amounts to a full-time job for many once you work in transportation and activities. Add in the looming pressure to make big life choices, the hormonal changes, the jobs many of them go to right after school, not to mention the painful, complicating life factors many kids face, things they never bring up and quietly hold back every day. I think of a video that was trending online, a man who put on some magic glasses that allowed him to see the truth behind others’ lives, the heartache they were facing. I try to imagine what I could see if I could wear those glasses as I walk through the hallways and classrooms.
The three teachers whose classrooms I work in are among the most remarkable human beings I’ve ever met. They’re witty, sharp, persevering, and kind, and every day, they pour all of their resources into being completely present for dozens of people they will only know a short time because like me, they believe in the importance of communication and human connection.
At the end of the day after afternoon tutoring ends, the white minivan pulls up again to pick me up and I am greeted by a beautiful cacophony of the shrieks and squeals of my three favorite minors. “How are you, babe?” asks my partner, my best friend. I am tired, I am hoarse; I feel like a sail beaten by the winds of a rough sea. I am hopeful. I am grateful to be home, by which I mean with my home team.
Playing plushies with Lucy is everything after a long day of educatin’.
And then I start my second life. I make believe Five Nights at Freddy’s with Lucy, look at Arthur’s drawings and Noah’s lego creations, make obscure pop culture references with Justin, eat tuna mac.
They go to sleep, and I sit down at the keyboard to write.