Sunday, October 18, 2015

What it's like teaching high school, Part 4

In a Facebook post in September, I mentioned that a very shy boy I'd taught as a freshman returned, now in his junior year, to say hello, and to tell me that life had gotten better, that he talks more now. In response, I received this comment from Donny Rios, a student from class of—2004, perhaps:

S. Kay Murphy, my fav teacher ever! The effect you had on me is everlasting. Because of you and your class my junior year I fell in love with writing. I write songs for a living because of you, my enormous interest in pursuing law school can be traced back to your class. To this day I still talk about the lessons you've taught me and also that damn red balloon movie lol. You have touched many lives and I have always promised myself that if I were ever to win some award or give a thank you speech somewhere I would include you. If that doesn't happen just know that you helped mold me into who I am today.

Are there words to express how deeply his heartfelt sentiment touched me?

For days afterward, Donny's comment floated before my teary eyes as I stood in front of this year's crop of potential poets, songwriters and attorneys. And then something even more miraculous happened.

In anticipation of retirement and downsizing, I have been slowly working through my files, discarding reams of unnecessary paper. A few days after Donny posted his comment, I began to sift through some poems I'd written years ago, evoking memories in the same way paging through a photo album might. And then, BAM. I pulled out a poem entitled "Reading Billy Collins," with a dedication to Donny Rios.

Oh my gosh, I remembered writing the poem but hadn't remembered who inspired it. The flood of memories became a torrent—days we spent in class, me ranting about the beauty of words, my students dutifully resisting anything that threatened a commitment to deep reading. For me, it is always akin to convincing a five-year-old that salad, with all its green foliage, is really tasty. I suggest, nudge, wheedle and plead until they just try a little of it, just to see if they might someday develop an appetite for it. At times—very, very rare times—they do.

Donny Rios did. How incredibly validating for me—especially in this final year of teaching. And then to find this poem, which not only mentions Donny but mentions retirement as well, written all those years ago... I can only say that this special blessing was brought to us today by the Universe. Oh, and thank you. I can certainly say thank you.

Now if you don't mind reading a little further, here is that poem:

Reading Billy Collins
S. Kay Murphy
for Donny Rios

I shake my head from side to side
Chuckling as I turn the page.

Occasionally I don't move on
To the next poem because
I want to savor the one on my tongue.

"How can you sit around and read books of poetry?" my students ask.
"Because he writes about what he is in love with," I tell them,
"and they are the same things that I am in love with."

The hush that follows is familiar;
They are afraid that I will be swept
Over the edge once again with my ranting.

"Like what?" 

The lone voice in the crowd
Is the brown-eyed boy, Donny,
Who hated poetry in September but now in May
Has admitted openly that he loves Robert Frost.

(Can I retire now? Are there accolades that teachers earn for such an achievement as this? A Purple Heart from the President with his warm handshake and a salute, accompanied by an honorable discharge, a hard-earned respite at long last from gum on the desks, phone calls from D grade parents and the ten thousandth essay on Hamlet?)

I digress
As I am wont to do while teaching,
Often choosing to lead my students down
The other path in that yellow wood.

"Mice!" I proclaim, "Dead brown mice!
Dogs! Dreams! Words like they are people! And readers as if they are words!
John Keats! And tea! Billy Collins drinks tea!"

By now I am shouting in my jubilation,
And they are convinced of my lunacy at last.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

What it's like teaching high school, Part 3

Today was one of those absolutely golden days of teaching wherein a band geek stepped up to be a hero, we caught a bad guy, and I made two proud mothers cry. Oh--and we spent some time with our favorite reptilian visitor, Houdini--but that part of the day is strictly off the record. Here's how it all went down in a nutshell:

Per. 1 & 2: My Honors freshmen read the short story, "The Interlopers," and carefully picked out the standard elements of short fiction--protagonist, conflict, climax, etc. Steve, who never volunteers to answer questions, raised his hand today--and BINGO!--gave a spot-on explanation of the conflict. (Two men who hate each other are trapped under a fallen tree on a winter night, side by side.) Nice. Rosa (who, by the way, was told by another teacher to leave the Honors program because if she didn't she'd "struggle all year," which prompted a great conversation with my students about grit) gave us the tiny detail that led us to the greatest irony in the story: the two protagonists each pray that harm will come to the other--and their prayers are answered. (**SPOILER ALERT** Both men die in the end.)

Per. 3: For the last ten minutes of class, the kids paired up to drill each other in preparation for tomorrow's quiz. After class, Very Sweet Band Geek Boy (hereinafter known as VSBGB) approached me privately to let me know another boy in class had been boasting about taking a smartphone that didn't belong to him. He didn't intend to return it (he explained to several students around him) and had already removed the SIM card. "It's making me feel bad," VSBGB said. "Like I'm alone in the world" (meaning no one else in the group of students cared about the person who would by now be terribly missing his or her phone). I told VSBGB I would take care of it, and I did, giving a proctor all the pertinent information, who promptly headed off to interrogate the culprit. I mean suspect. (Innocent until... yeah, right, we had him dead to rights, cell phone in hand.)

Per. 4 is my conference/lunch period. New Boy to College Prep earned an A+ on last week's quiz, answering every question flawlessly and with "Repeat after me!" precision, so I decided to call his mama and let her know that he was settling in nicely and that I'd like to recommend him for Honors next year. She promptly began to cry, explaining that she and her husband had just today returned home from an out-of-state trip because her husband's grandmother had died. The family was in mourning. "I have neglected him for three weeks," she said tearfully. "His older brother has been taking care of him. We were so worried about them...." It comforted her to know that her boy continued his life, status quo, in her absence. She planned to reward him upon his return from school. Nice. I also took a minute to leave a voicemail for the mother of VSBGB, thinking she would be proud of her boy, too. I didn't tell her why, but asked her to call me when she could.

Per. 5: Just as I began to teach my unruly fifth period, a teacher's aid from another classroom (an adult, not a student TA) rushed in to show me her iPhone--oh yes! the one the Naughty Boy had nabbed! It had been recovered! He had, in fact, removed the SIM card (which was recovered). He had also removed the case and thrown it in a dumpster. It was a wallet case--with all her credit cards and drivers license in it. That was recovered, too, and yes, the cards were all accounted for. She was over-the-moon happy and thanked me profusely. I explained it was VSBGB (and we agreed to keep his super-hero identity a secret, lest the Naughty Boy swear out a personal vendetta against him).

Per. 6: I suppose we always need balance in life--from heroes and villains to comic relief--so the Journalism class was pleased to see Katie show up with her bag full of tegu. (A tegu is a very large, very exotic lizard.) She's had Houdini since she was a freshman, and she has brought him to school nearly every day, at first hidden beneath her beanie (when he weighed a pound or two), then curled in the bottom of a cloth bag that looks like it would hold a bundle of PE clothes. Houdini is huge now--over three feet in length--and an absolutely beautiful mini-dinosaur. The young journalists gathered 'round, and Katie told them all about the care and feeding of a tegu. She's part of the Zoo-Bot club on campus, so sometimes it's actually legit for Houdini to be on campus. Today, though, she just came by so I could see how much he's grown. (NOTE: I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention this to my boss. He's a bit touchous about critters in the classroom. Ahem.)

After school, since I hadn't heard from the mother of VSBGB, I called his dad. Papa was very, very proud (and convinced, as I was, that Boy would come home from school and when asked about what transpired in his day would respond "not much" in typical teen fashion. "Did you call my wife?" Proud Papa asked. I let him know I hadn't received a return call. Just as I was getting in the truck to leave campus, my cell phone rang. When I told Mother of VSBGB that her boy had been quite the hero, she immediately began to cry. She was so choked up, she could hardly speak. "We've never had a teacher call to tell us something nice," she said, echoing what her husband had said. "We're just so proud of him and we love him  so much." How could you not? He's very sweet. AND a band geek. AND a young man with empathy who saw something and decided to say something. Super-hero.

I have fewer than 150 days left to teach. May each day hold such tiny golden gifts as these. I will treasure them forever.