I was knee-deep in the salty Sound, giving the horizon a thousand-yard stare. August’s balmy breeze belied the strength of the sun that warmed my shoulders. For the first time in weeks, I was truly relaxed.
My youngest stood next to me holding a small snail in his hand. “Did you know that if you hum to a snail it will come out of its shell?”
In 42 summers at the beach, why had I never heard this?
“No way. Really?”
“Really. Try it.” My son gently dropped the snail into my outstretched palms. We both looked it.
“Try it,” he said again.
I raised my open hands toward my chin and began to hum a quiet, happy little tune. The snail remained firmly in its shell. I stopped after a few seconds, my hands still raised, and cocked an eyebrow at my son.
“Jeez, Mom. Give it a minute. Keep going,” he said.
I began to hum again, unconcerned with how silly I might have seemed humming a lullaby into my palms. After a few bars of steady melody, the snail slowly emerged from its shell. Its striped, squishy body arched as high as it could. I stopped humming. “Look at it. It’s like a little miracle!” I exclaimed, and just as quickly it retreated into its shell. I tried again, humming a few gentle bars of the song and, sure enough, the little snail wiggled out of its shell and seemed to peer all around.
If I had to choose a moment in time to freeze forever, it might be that afternoon at the beach with my boys. Our summer jobs and camps had ended, we had just returned from a family trip to Washington, D.C., and we had a couple of blissfully uneventful weeks ahead of us before we returned to the school routine.
And yet, despite how happy I was to enjoy this time off, I kind of missed my job—not the work, per se. Not the meetings, data, grading, or planning. But I missed my students, and I had spent the summer thinking about a few of them in particular. I looked forward to returning to school August 31st and being reassured of their well-being.
What they don’t prepare you for in teacher school—what they don’t tell you at all—is how much you could possibly care about your students. Sure, they tell you that you’ll care about them. Yes, they’ll warn you that you will likely, at least once, grieve their untimely loss. But they don’t tell you how much you will fear that loss for certain at-risk students in particular. They don’t tell you how deeply you’ll care. They don’t tell you how hard it will become to listen to the superficial chatter of peers outside of education who, through no fault of their own, have No Clue what it’s like to be a teacher—especially in a city.
Especially in New Haven.
No one prepares you for the day your lesson plans will need to be tossed aside to address the collective grief in class over the shooting death of their friend from another school. They don’t tell you that you’ll worry all summer long about your student who missed the last two weeks of school recovering from a gunshot wound. They don’t tell you that you and a colleague will sob together in a small office because a very disruptive student revealed that both of his parents were dead, and that he’s being raised by his grandmother—but they don’t have any food to eat because she’s too proud to ask for help. That’s why he’s always hungry first period. And, you note to yourself, he’s often so dirty, too.
They don’t tell you how much you’re going to care about kids who often don’t believe you even like them let alone want the best for them. They don’t warn you that some days you’ll stand alone in your classroom after the last bell, forehead pressed against the cool cinderblock wall, one hand holding the phone’s receiver as your weigh whether it’s worth calling home today to report a student’s awful behavior, or if that might make things worse for him, for you, and ultimately for the whole class. You wonder, exhausted, if instead you should talk to him in the hallway next time you see him. You wonder if that class learned anything that day. You wonder if you’re even a good teacher. You wonder if you ever should have become a teacher in the first place. You realize you haven't used the bathroom in five hours, and that's contributing to your crippling indecision. Then you hang up the phone.
They don’t tell you about how you will sit and stare blankly at your gradebook in June, wondering how to convert a high F to a D for a kid who has twice failed freshman English, but who was always present and respectful, who always said hello to you in the hallways, and whose mother once said she had “given up on him” because she has “other kids to raise.” What is a third year of English 1 going to accomplish here? If you pass him, does that mean you are a crappy, easy teacher? Should you have ever bothered becoming a teacher in the first place? The gradebook will stare back at you in silence.
And surely you never would have become a teacher if you had known that some of your colleagues would say—out loud, for people to actually hear – that they aren’t interested in getting to know their students. They’re just at school to do their job, teach their material, and go home at 2:15. No one tells you how you’ll surprise yourself by wanting to throw punches for that.
They don’t tell you that you’ll get summer emails from students who just want to say hi, who want to share good news, or who need reassurance that their first year of college will be okay. No one lets you in on the secret that you’ll be tearfully proud of your students when they graduate and make their way to college and into the big, beautiful world that awaits them. No one could prepare you for the day an emotionally and academically struggling student would find his way senior year and receive a huge ovation from his supportive class upon receiving an award. And while they might tell you how those aha! moments in the classroom are the reason we all teach, no one could prepare you for just how beautiful it is to see a student's face light up when something clicks or when they find the courage to present something in front of the entire class.
No one clues you in to the fact that your students will come to you when they are proud of an accomplishment—a good grade, a spot on the team, acceptance to their reach school, or simply that they walked away from an invitation to fight. No one tells you about the invitations you will receive – to recitals, art shows, sporting events, and talent shows – from students seeking your support outside of the classroom. No one warns you how often your Sad Teacher Lunch (a baked sweet potato and apple sauce, anyone?) will be interrupted by visits from freshmen who would much rather sit and safely chat with you during lunch than wither in the wilds of the cafeteria.
No one could prepare you for the hugs, hugs, and more hugs you would receive the first week back to school. Hugs from kids who gave you hell all last year, but who come back to school a little taller, a little more mature, and who actually ask you if you had a nice summer vacation. No one told you how much you’d want to cry when that student who had been shot shows up after three months and gives you the biggest hug of your life—in front of all of his friends. And you are so grateful—so impossibly grateful—that he is alive. That he is smiling. That he is now where you and your colleagues can see him, keep an eye on him, and remind him to do his best at this game of high school, this game of life. You wonder if you care so much about this kid and so many others because you're a mom, or if it's just who you are. You wonder if you would actually be a better, more rigorous, more effective teacher if you cared a little less.
Really, though, how on earth could you ever care less?
No one told you that you would care this much, and that some people might even chide you for it. But the truth is that you don’t care what they think. Instead you quietly, persistently hum a gentle melody to yourself and know that little miracles are hiding everywhere for those who care to find them.