At the end…

This is an archive of my day yesterday.

We’re nearing the close of classes with online schooling. It isn’t the end for me, with narrative comments and college letters of recommendations looming. But in terms of meeting with kids, there’s not much left, and I had my plans in order — at least well outlined in my head for some, ready to execute for others. But I felt anxious. On Thursday afternoon, I finished my last meeting, had finished my prep work for Friday, and was in a good place. But my heart was beating, racing, and I didn’t know what it was. That anxiety usually happens to me when I have something impending looming (like a stack of tests I need to grade, or a challenging email I need to write or conversation I need to have) and I am stressed about it. But I had none of that. But my heart was racing. I was a little short of breath.

I tried to relax, but I couldn’t focus on reading. My mind quickly wandered. TV worked.

A few different things had been thrown at me in the past few days. I wrote to teaching friends, as I processed and as a way to vent: “The problem about keeping boundaries in teaching is that boundaries I draw to protect myself often involves saying no to a kid who I can prop up by saying yes. I recently wanted to say no to four requests — some entitled, some respectful. I don’t have much left of me to give. I couldn’t. When it comes to me or them, I pick them. Again and again. As I slowly burn out. Teaching is hard. It will never not be hard. Because we give so much of our selves, emotionally, mentally. I don’t always want to do that. But I (honestly) don’t know how not to.” The same thing happened two weeks ago with college recommendations. I teach two junior classes. All but three juniors asked me for a recommendation. I felt utterly deflated. And honored. If someone could be in my head as I try to craft these, you’d understand the deflation. They not only take me forever, but they are emotionally draining because I want to capture my kids with integrity. I told my classes I had to limit them and I hoped they understood. I tried to be transparent and vulnerable with them about what doing this meant for me, and why I had to limit them, because they deserved that. But when I read their reflections, I couldn’t say no. I thought about the Giving Tree. I’m not that self-destructive. But for a moment I martyred myself.

The next day I woke up at 6:40. to an alarm. I quickly showered so I could check my kiddos nightly work. With online learning, I go through what my kids worked on each day before class to give individual feedback, but also know what we need to talk about together as a class. Although my heart wasn’t racing, I still felt… tight. Wound up. I was off. My kids were doing really strong thinking with hyperbolas and that made me happy. Some kids really struggled applying the quadratic formula for the first time and that made me wonder about my approach this year. I tried to address that by breaking it into two pieces and having them work on those separately — but maybe there was a better way? I woke up earlier than normal because I had an optional meeting I wanted to attend at 8:15am about the finances of our school. Our new head of school wanted to share where we were at — trying to be transparent about the decisions being made by the board and the school. I appreciated that, and her openness to talk about it.

Yesterday evening all advisors received an email saying that instead of meeting in our advisories, we would be meeting as an entire high school to give some time to discuss the recent tragedies involving Ahmaud Arbery  Christian Cooper  George Floyd  Nina Pop. I hadn’t heard of Nina Pop. Her name was misspelled in the email we received. Both of those facts together speaks to something about me, and something bigger than me. I entered the zoom meeting and scroll through 16 pages of faces. More, maybe. Tired, yawning. And then the meeting begins. It was planned to be a 20 minute meeting. It starts with Feel. Reflect. Act. Grow. Repeat. 

Two hours later, we’ve heard the voices of students and faculty. Anger and frustration about teachers not bringing up these current events, and in general black/POC issues, in classes. About the ability to check in and opt out depending on skin color, and whether things should be optional. Calls for people to go to march at Foley Square at 4pm. Kids requested breakout rooms early on, and I was assigned Breakout Room 22 with eight students, seven of whom I had never met, nervous about facilitating a conversation about race that I hadn’t prepared with strangers. My heart sang as my colleague and friend Monika was also randomly placed in the room. We launched the conversation with a focused question, but that didn’t work, so we went broader to “how are you feeling?” Kids started talking. At times, they were discussing with themselves. At times they were asking the opinions of the two adults in the room. One asked our thoughts on ACAB. I had never heard of that and with slight trepidation (should I know?) asked. “All cops are bad” two students responded. It’s a thing, they said. Reductionist. Monika was more eloquent and nuanced in her response. We talked about multiple narratives (it’s complex). The reasons for violence in riots/protests, and if it pushes things forwards or not (it depends). There are no pat answers and easy fixes, everything is layered, structural, cultural, historical. This is one slice, one slide, of a much longer movie. We end with each saying a word, phrase, or something we’re thinking about. I say “over-intellectualizing.” We move back to the main discussion room and I hear our high school principal talking. We’ve gone past first period. I’ve already emailed my kids in my second period class saying we’re not having class and to stay in the meeting. I look and see over 300 students and faculty are in the room. Faculty and students speak. I don’t know how they avoid talking over one another with 300 people, but somehow they do. Outrage. Questioning of the school curricula. Frustration with the statistics around black lives. Calling out hypocrisy. Asking questions about whose responsibility it is to educate kids on race — some say kids are responsible for themselves, some say its the school. Discussions about cultural appropriation. Sharing of feelings. The importance of being called out and of calling out. About the difference between being a liberal and an anti-racist, and being a liberal doesn’t make you an anti-racist. About the conflation between being liberal and being “good.” About being called out and accepting that as a gift. I think to myself that some of these kids must have read White Fragility. A concurrent conversation happens in the chat, twisting and turning with the vocal conversation. I keep silent. I like spaces for kids to talk. I don’t often know what they think about. This isn’t a “conversation” in the sense that we’re talking to find a goal. Right now, we’re talking because people need to talk because they have a lot bubbling up inside. We all have a lot of bubbling up inside. That… that was when I knew why my heart racing yesterday.

Our high school principal ended the meeting before our third period class. It was two hours from when we started. I open my zoom meeting for our Algebra 2 class. Obviously we aren’t doing math today. As the large meeting was winding down, I brainstormed what would make sense and gave my kids some options. They chose to continue the conversation. Unlike in the first breakout room I was in, this conversation was mainly had by kids, where I tried to give them space to speak and I listened. I took notes. They were in the same grade and class and knew each other. They didn’t turn to me for answers. I don’t have answers. I interjected sometimes, and then stepped away. When class was officially over, they were still talking, so I told them they could leave if they wanted or continue talking. Most wanted to stay and so we held court for 20 more minutes.

I was late to a book club I had scheduled during lunch. I emailed the student leader to start it up without me. We were reading Hannah Fry’s Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms. We were two adults and five kids. The conversation at the beginning stayed close to the book — which also had some themes on race — but very occasionally would go back to something from the discussions the school was having. It was fun and a lighthearted discussion with smiles. We had finished the book, and the scheduled time we had together was done, but we all continued chatting, and the conversation turned into questioning about what teachers think about lots of things. It morphed into an unguarded and vibrant conversation, one that I love having with my friends when they ask a lot of questions showing interest in what I do. I felt close to these kids, and appreciative for them. I don’t know much about what students think about, and looking back I wished I had asked students questions too. It was 12:50 and I had a class at 1:15 so we bid each other farewell. My eyes were literally vibrating at this point. I had been emotionally run raw and I had been staring at my computer screen since 8:15. All I had ingested was a cup of coffee. I heated up some frozen leftover macaroni and cheese and wolfed it down. I emailed a student I was supposed to meet at 2:20pm — an important meeting so I hated doing this — to reschedule.

I entered my last class. At this point I had very little more to give. I had very little left I could discuss. I told kids I had been on zoom all day, and I had been engaging all day, and I needed a 10 minute break to do math and recenter myself. So I did math with them for 10 minutes. And then instead of giving my kids a choice like I did for an earlier class, I made the decision that we’d read something together. I pulled up Francis Su’s keynote address to the Mathematical Association of America — his farewell address as president. A section of this address is on “Justice.” It is centered around this quotation by Simone Weil:

“Justice. To be ever ready to admit that another person is something quite different from what we read when he is there (or when we think about him). Or rather, to read in him that he is certainly something different, perhaps something completely different from what we read in him.  Every being cries out silently to be read differently.”

We read it popcorn style. Someone would read a paragraph or two and then stop. Someone else would jump in. I hadn’t read this in a while. I have the book based on this speech that Prof. Su wrote afterward, after his speech went viral in the math community, trapped at school, unread, sitting on my desk. As kids started reading, I remember hoping it would speak to the events of the day at school. I hadn’t time to review it to see if it did. Everything I was doing today was on the fly. The section did, at least to me. It was longer than I remembered. It took a while to get through, or maybe I just lost sense of time because I was exhausted. When I read, every so often, I forgot words or mixed them around. My eyes were jumping around the text, unable to focus. At the end, I told kids if they wanted space to talk about the events of the day or the piece we just read, we could have it. Or we could call it an end. I consciously tried not to make it sound, when giving the options, like I really wanted to end, so they knew they truly had a choice. We called it an end, and I was grateful. I was empty.

I posted the nightly work for my classes from today. I shared with them some articles, including  this piece on Edray Goins, which I remember having my classes read last year and gave us a lot to talk about. And this keynote speech by Marian Dingle about “centering.” I apologized in my google classroom post for not bringing in more conversations about race, gender, and other -isms into class, and said it wasn’t just the jobs of the history and English teachers (something kids had brought up in the conversations).

I had 45 minutes to lie on my couch and close my eyes. I thought about how much the world has changed since I was in high school. I thought about how much the kids we teach are aware and know and care… and I wondered if the non-POC kids and faculty really cared in their hearts or if they cared because they were supposed to care. I wondered if I cared in my heart or if I cared because I am supposed to care. I felt the weight of guilt — trying to parse what I’ve done to help my kids know they’re “being read” — especially the POC, especially the girls and non-binary kids. I found myself thinking of when I had kids read about a trans mathematician and a queer mathematician and we talked about that in class. Or when I had kids read about a black mathematician and we discussed. And then I thought: wait, maybe we did that last year and not this year? About the ways I tried to encourage the bright girls in my precalculus classes who were outnumbered by boys — to know they were valuable and their ideas were valuable. But maybe it was too subtle, or not enough, or nothing at all. About my intention to have kids listen to a podcast of latinx mathematicians and how I never made space and time for it. As I thought about these things to assuage and exacerbate my own guilt, I clung to certain things as I was hoping to justify I was “good.” Though I’m not white, this was definitely white fragility. And I thought about if and how today would change anything. For me. For our community. Because I’ve been around, and these sorts of days have happened before. And we as a school community get all riled up and passionate. And then a week later, we’re back to the status quo. Or have we? Have small changes been made that add up over time? I remember thinking, maybe one day the fire will catch and maybe we’ll have something sustainable. Days like these are the sparks. You can’t have fire without a spark.

At 3pm, we had a department meeting. It felt incongruous to the day because we had no mention of the happenings of the day. We toasted to colleagues (friends) who were moving on — one to another school, one to blissful retirement. And we did some work together. When the meeting ended at 3:45pm, I moved to my couch and laid down.

A little over an hour later, I hopped onto a zoom call with three colleagues and friends. We have this tradition every Friday. It’s nice to have this normalcy and camaraderie. These are people I need to vent to, but also laugh with, because otherwise I would feel very alone as a teacher in isolation. We talked about the day, processed, a few tears were shed early on, and laughed. We lasted two hours. And we imagined ourselves on a beach adventure together, in person, and committed to making that happen when we could. It dawns on me that this trip is literally the only actual thing I have to look forward to in my life right now. A hypothetical trip to the beach.

This is an archive of my day yesterday.

6 comments

  1. Wow! That was a lot! Thanks for sharing, Sam. I continue to be inspired by your dedication and appreciate insights into your thoughtful mind. Your students are so lucky that you are such a good listener and thinker but definitely exhausting for you. I hope an in-person beach trip comes soon for you.

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  2. Thank you. Your words have given me a better perspective on some things I can do for my kids, next year, of course. Our classes were out on the 20th. Everything feels so incomplete. As I write this, it is Pentecost Sunday. The flames came to the disciples. It’s a fitting time for these questions, for tongues of fire burning bright, full of the Holy Spirit. Thank you.

    1. Wow, that must really hurt, not being in school to be able to help your kids during this time — just sort of hanging. I empathize with feeling incomplete — even though we’re in school, my last day with kids is coming up soon — so though we had one day to talk, that’s all it was. We need more time as a community to make sense of things. Hopefully the fire will still be burning bright over the summer.

  3. – I am often at a loss at how best to explain to non teachers what teaching is like – especially at the high school level. How emotionally and physically and mentally draining it is. During the day I feel like my students ‘charge’ themselves through me as though they were rechargeable batteries – and I feel myself empty of the light they draw. In the evening – I need to have time to recharge, time to recenter, and then the next day the process starts all over again. I have been teaching for over 20 years – and the environment and culture Now teach in requires ever so much more ‘giving of light’ than it has in the past. Your words sum up my feelings in so many ways. Thank you.

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