In 1966 I walked into my first classroom.
Well, technically, I’d been in a classroom of one kind or another ever since I started kindergarten with Miss Allen at Lowell Elementary on S. Flower Street, Santa Ana, California.
The key word, however, in that first sentence is my. In all of those other too many to count classrooms, the owner was someone else: Miss Allen (Kindergarten); Miss Boyd (third grade); Mrs. Duke (fifth grade), and Mrs. Lilly (sixth grade)—to name my truly influential and unforgettable elementary teachers. No one, really, stands out at Lathrop, which is probably more my fault that theirs. (I had other teachers during that time: at Lathrop Branch Library, there was Miss Leona Calkins, Betty Wimpress, and a few other marvelous librarians; and at church, there was Sister Bessie Peterson, my Sunday school teacher until junior high) and various pastors, but especially the pastor we called Brother Shackleton.)
Until that day in September 1966 when I walked into my classroom at Red Bluff Union High School, the classrooms I was in always belonged to someone else. But I remember this particular day with particular clarity.
I remember a deep sense of achievement when I crossed that literal and liminal threshold. It was a relatively new classroom. One half wall of bookshelves, a desk, and a closet. The windows were transom and there were only two because of air conditioning (for which, in Red Bluff, I was always grateful). Two walls were pretty much covered with blackboard. Yes, we still used chalk. The fourth wall was the window and door wall. There was nothing really remarkable about the room; I think the empty walls were covered with wood paneling and some space for bulletin boards. And, of course, the ubiquitous neon lighting. Oh, yes, and a podium where I leaned and rows of movable desks (that were seldom if ever moved). As plain and utilitarian as it was, that room became sacred, liminal space for me and, sometimes, for my students. I crossed that threshold and said, I think aloud, “Yes, this is it.”
Those were hugely formative years. I came to be comfortable there. I became increasingly at home. I began a life long pilgrimage as a teacher, thinker about teaching and learning, and a discoverer of the joy and terror of teaching. Living into my calling. Many years later I read this by Parker Palmer—
Vocation at its deepest level is not, “Oh, boy, do I want to go to this strange place where I have to learn a new way of life and where no one, including me, understands what I’m doing.” Vocation at its deepest level is, “This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling. (Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, p. 25)
And I thought, “Yes, this is it.” I cannot conceive of my life out of the context of teaching and learning and helping others learn and teach. At times my courage has failed me and anyone who has ever read this blog or talked with me about teaching knows that I often feel like a failure—and a fraud. Yet, when I think about giving up and walking away, my knees quake, my heart constricts, and tears form. Teaching is one of those professions in which the doing and the being are one. Yes, I am a human being but my essence and my expression of my essence is summed up in this one word—Teacher.
My idea of what a teacher is has changed over the years and certainly my sense of what a teacher does has changed over the years. I’ve always tried to pay attention to my teacher-friends and teacher-colleagues; I’ve always tried to pay attention to my students—what concerns them, what they are seeking, and what they are hoping. And, in light of paying attention, I’ve tried always to ask, “How, then, shall I live?” “How, then, shall I teach?” “How, then, shall I connect and relate?” I’ve always tried to ask, “What is it about what I’m doing that matters most—and how can I do it better?”
Over the next several entries, I’m going to attempt to think “out loud” about what I’ve learned—or think I have—as I’ve stood before and walked alongside those questions, my students, and my colleagues. I’m not sure why I’m offering this in my blog—I know that I think better when I write it. Perhaps a discussion will develop, although I have no real hopes for that because my blog just sort of hangs out there and none to few have ever responded; in fact, this blog is really my personal effort to tentatively answer those questions for myself. I do not presume to have anything to teach anyone else about teaching; the only presumption I have is that I might provide a kind of model or direction for how to live into and out of a vocation—any vocation, really—but teaching in particular.
No order to this; it’s randomly developed and written…. From time to time there will b a poem or two—some new and some old (because the old seem to fit again in this new context).
So, then, the question is “What have I learned?” Beginning with the next entry, I’ll introduce you to the first of my student/teachers—Sally Hrdlicka.