You can’t go home again

So I haven’t posted in awhile.  Like three months.  I’ve been busy with some stuff–getting a job, moving, visiting home, getting pregnant.  It’s exciting times, but it doesn’t exactly leave a ton of room for blogging.  Now though I find things equalizing a bit, or perhaps I’m carving out a bit more time for writing.

Working at an English school brings a whole host of new experiences, but the most striking difference comes not from the cultural differences, but from the fact that the school I teach at now is a ‘regular’ school, with students of all backgrounds and abilities, whereas the school I worked at in Queens, my alma mater, is an honors high school.

I didn’t always teach at an honor’s high school.  In fact, I’ve taught at some high needs schools, sometimes called inner city schools.  Whatever you want to call them, it could be rough.  I’ve had fights work their way into my classroom more than once; I’ve had students curse me out; I’ve heard some sobering tales of home life and taught girls of 15 and 16 who had to wedge their pregnant bellies into those L shaped desks.  I thought I had seen it all, and to be honest, I had seen most of it.

Then I got a job at my old high school out in Queens, and teaching became completely different.  I used to set homework and maybe two or three kids out of a class of 25 would do it.  At this school, I’d assign homework, and I’d have kids coming up to me saying “I know you said to write a paragraph, but I wrote four pages.  Is that ok?”  That is its own kind of stress–think about marking 150 papers like that!–but the kids were lovely.  I could have real conversations with them, and they’d engage with anything.  They paid attention when I talked.

Teaching at an honors high school has its own set of challenges–how do you stop cheating?  How do you make kids more invested in learning than numbers? etc–but these are all very esoteric problems which require subtle solutions.  Nobody was throwing desks across the classroom anymore and in the three years I worked there, I started to grow soft.

Then I got this job, my first teaching job in the UK.  I went in using my honors high school teaching style and they sat there and blinked at me for one lesson.  Then they started talking and they never shut up.  Kids cursed me out, were rude, disobedient, mocked my accent.  One time I tried to open a door that happened to be locked and a group of boys burst out laughing.  Another time I stood in front of a year 10 boy to tell him not to throw paper airplanes, and he lobbed one right over my head.

Don’t get me wrong–these kids have their good sides and their funny sides too.  It’s just that they certainly don’t wear those good sides on their sleeves the way the Queens hs kids would.  They definitely trade in a world where it’s not cool at all to be a nerd.  It’s almost as though they’ve watched a bunch of movies about American high schools and decided that’s how teenagers should be, and that’s the template they’re going to follow.  Which, as you can imagine, makes them a bit frustrating to teach.

Then, last week, I had to cover a class of top set year 11’s, that is to say (for those of you not versed in English educational parlance), the honors kids of Year 11.  For a lesson, it was like being back at my old school.  I asked the kids whether they wanted to get on with the questions that their teacher had set on their own, or whether they wanted me to go over things with them.  I expected them to say they wanted to work on things by themselves, as the sentiment towards teachers at this school seems to be “Stay as far away from me as you can before I catch some of your oldness.”  However, these kids eagerly asked for me to help, and fretted about their upcoming GCSE…just like old times!  I was able to tell them some stories, and then refocus them.  They had deeply intelligent and insightful things to say about the poem.  It made me so homesick.

When I was back in New York around Easter, I visited my old school.  It was amazing to see all my old students there again, greet them, hear what was going on.  Yet walking those halls, I knew I wasn’t a part of them any more.  I still have inklings about what’s going on there thanks to social media and the student newspaper being online.  But I wasn’t there for the schedule change controversy.  I see pictures of the editors of the paper that I used to advise with their new adviser on Facebook.  He seems to be super adviser, and it makes me realize that I am not a part of that school, that paper, or these kids’ lives anymore.  I feel like I do when I first had to leave the school as a graduate.  I loved my years there, even if there were times when I sat up at 3 A.M. rocking myself in the living room like one on the verge of a nervous breakdown because I thought there was no way I would get my work done.  I made some of the best friends of my life there, though.  I learned much.  I was inspired.  Leaving and going out into the great wide world of college was one of the hardest things I had to do.

When I returned, I thought that I would never leave.  It was a strange thought that at 30, I had found the job I planned to retire in, but I couldn’t see any need or desire to go anywhere else.  I had come home again, and proved the old adage wrong.  It was just the same as ever, and it felt like my students were versions of myself and my classmates, just somewhere between 15 and 20 years younger.

Now that I have left, I feel a bit lost.  My students now can be so resistant they’ve made me question my abilities as a teacher more than once.  I’ve gotten much shoutier than I want to.  I’ve gone for several job interviews, including at the school where I’m currently working (as the current position is just a maternity cover) and been shot down for all of them.  I think part of that is because I left a little piece of myself behind at that school in Queens.  There must be a sci fi thing somewhere where if you time travel and return to a place of your past, you leave a piece of yourself behind.

Trying to look ahead in my career is a little bit difficult at the moment because there’s a big ol’ baby in the way.  But still I find myself wondering if I’m at a crossroads.  Teaching was the backup plan that I fell in love with.  Didn’t I always want to be a writer?  Maybe it’s time to try.  But on the other hand, maybe I shouldn’t quit just because the going is getting a bit tough.  Yet how can I seriously weigh any of this when I am going to be responsible for raising a human being, for the rest of my life?  This child will not pass through my life and out in a flicker; I will not wonder years later if he or she remembers me, or if I made even the slightest bit of difference in their lives or to their perspective, the way I do with my students.  No, I know I will be responsible for shaping this little person who is currently the size of an orange, for better or for worse.  I will be on the other side of the table parent teacher nights.  I will be the one my child’s teachers speculate on when they are particularly well behaved or poorly behaved.  The buck stops with me and MR, and that awesome power is overshadowing everything else at the moment.

But even so, if there were a way to go back to my old job, to that safe little cocoon in Queens, I don’t think I would have the wherewithal to say no.

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5 thoughts on “You can’t go home again

  1. Hi,
    teaching is exhausting – the radar is constantly on. And when the audience is emotionally challenged, academically challenged, or just challenging… it is a whole other ballpark and makes u question every single word that comes out of your mouth…. cocoons are highly sought and there is nothing wrong with that. I work with challenged students and learning to figure out their real needs has been rewarding and disheartening. Sometimes you just can’t do much.

    I have also been a writer, a freelance writer and a corporate writer and a project manager for publishing. Writing is a lonely endeavour and requires a solid social network that does keep the same hours.

    I am also, mom to 3 boys (they grow up into young men – nobody told me that 😉 ) … Babies have a way of filling up hours, and filling up ur heart too.

    Good luck with all of that – great post 🙂

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