Friday, June 3, 2016

For the love of teaching

This time of year, it’s not uncommon to hear my teaching friends lament, “For the love of God, will the school year just end already!”  Mid-May to early June is an uncommonly active time for educators as they are busy with field trips, award ceremonies, last-minute parent/teacher conferences, and final grade card compilations.  During the brutal last week of my first year teaching in Troy, Ohio, I'd end each day by rewarding myself with a Bartles and Jaymes wine cooler.  Twenty-odd years later, I can still remember the sweet, tangy taste of every single one.
It’s been nearly two decades since I decided to leave my primary position at Greenwood Elementary, and finally, after all of this time, I no longer have reoccurring nightmares about having to go back to the classroom.  For years I dreamed I was trapped, unprepared and outnumbered by a bunch of kids who were gunning for me to cry, yell, or simply tear out my hair.  I imagine a lot of the teachers out there can relate, for it took a long, long time to finally convince my subconscious that I was no longer responsible for the behavior of anyone but myself.  Since 1999, I’ve taught yoga to children of all ages, but even that’s dwindled down to three or four classes a year.  For a while I figured I was done teaching kids.  I even thought, Maybe I’ve finally outgrown my need to work with little ones.   
Then my neighbor’s four-year-old granddaughter came over for a visit last weekend.
While harvesting columbine seeds on the front porch swing, I heard Lilly’s voice:  “Papa!  I want to go to Snow White’s house.”  When Steve introduced us a few weeks ago, he told her my real name, but ever since then, Lilly prefers Snow White or Snow for short.
When I saw her face peeking around the trellis, I smiled.  “Come on over, sweet one.  Have you seen my fairy garden?”
Lilly beamed.  “No!”
For the next half an hour she had a ball discovering the miniature birdbaths, butterflies, and baubles.  Upon finding a trio of cats (one on every doorstep), Lilly said, “Look-it!  Look-it, Snow!  You have a bunch of animals!”
“Can you find the skunk?” I asked.  “Every fairy garden needs a skunk.”
“Pee yoo!” she giggled, but quickly found it front and center.
“That’s one of my favorite animals,” I told her.  “I even have a skunk stripe in my hair!”
“Yeah, and I know why,” Steve grinned.  He winked at Lilly.  “’Cause Snow White is a little stinker.”
“That’s the truth,” I laughed.
Once she had her fill of the fairy garden, Lilly wanted to look at all of the flowers in my front yard.  I grabbed a pair of shears and clipped a small bouquet for her saying, “This one’s called an Iris…this one’s called Yarrow…this one’s called an Impatiens.”
“Did you name them all?” Lilly innocently asked.
“Oh, how cute!” I smiled.  “No…but did you know your name is a flower?”
“It is?”
“Sure!  And in a few weeks, my day lilies will be blooming!”
Lilly’s eyes widened.  “Can I have some of them, too?”
“Of course.”
When we went back to sit on the porch swing, Lilly noticed a couple of pots filled with colorful annuals, in-between which sat a stone.
“That has a word on it,” Lilly said smartly.
I reached over and picked it up.  “Do you know your letters yet?” 
Lilly shook her head.
Tracing each one, I said, “This is a p.  This is an e.  This is an a.  This is a c.  This is an e.” 
Lilly’s eyes followed my finger, watching carefully.  “What does it say?”
“It says peace,” I replied.  “Do you know what that means?”
Lilly cocked her head.  “Like when you eat something?”
“Oh, how smart!” I nodded.  “Like a piece of cake, right?”
“Uh huh.”
“That’s one kind,” I winked.  “It’s spelled differently…p-i-e-c-e.  This kind of peace means to be calm and quiet.  Like how we’re sitting here enjoying this peaceful afternoon.  Still, you could enjoy a piece of cake while having some peace and quiet.”
“Oh…I get it!” Lilly smiled.  “Like how that squirrel over there likes to sit and be peaceful in your yard.”
Sure enough, there was Sam, my furry little pal, spread-eagle on the grass, waiting for me to get up and feed her some nuts.  Lilly happily did the honors until it was time for her to go home, and when she hugged me good-bye, I promised she could always spend more time with me in the garden. 

Loving and nurturing children has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.  From baby-sitting in high school to counseling at a day camp in college, from being a classroom instructor to enjoying the perks of being “the fun and sometimes crazy aunt”, I’ve experienced all of the joys and sorrows that come with the territory.  Some of the kids drove me nearly insane.  Others touched my heart in ways I can’t quite articulate.  Some challenged me to become more forgiving and understanding.  Others modeled the kind of person I hope to be someday.  Yet all of them showed me how multi-faceted the world of learning can be if I allow myself to be both the teacher and the student.  In fact, I’ve often said that the kids in my classroom gave me a better education than any course I ever took at the University.
Earlier this week, I was able to attend a presentation Satish gave at his school.  The students in his upper elementary class had to dress up as a famous Ohioan, so my pal was Cy Young for the day.  As each student stood alone in front of the audience, reciting a memorized account they had written themselves, it was incredible to notice how many of the kids had once been in my yoga classes when they were very young.  Now five, seven, or even nine years older than they were when I had met them, they all still have the same spark of mischief or the same bashful countenance, the same impish grin or the same gentle kindness.
Satish, in particular, amazed me.  While he spoke I wondered, What happened to the shy, cautious little boy he once was long ago?  He’s gone forever, replaced by a confident, clear, and articulate eleven-year-old.   For over half a dozen years I’ve taught Satish many things: how to knit and speak a little German.  How to read with expression and appreciate the satire in a hilarious George and Martha book.  How to play Hangman using proper punctuation and to cover the entire court while playing tennis.
Looking back on it, Satish has taught me as well:  how to speak a little Gujarati and the fancy footwork in an intricate Indian dance.  How to play a better game of chess and appreciate the fact that he’ll probably always beat the pants off of me.  How to speak with a host of accents while reading out loud and delight in knowing his voices are a lot more hilarious than mine.  Most of all, how to love a little boy with all of my heart, affirming that with every passing year, the time we have to share only becomes more priceless.

I’ll always be a teacher, no matter where I go or what I do, for I love watching a student learn something on their own, something for which I’ve set the stage, but have allowed them to discover for themselves.  There’s nothing quite like the sparkle in a child’s eyes when he realizes he can read on his own or the enormous pride a yoga student feels when she can truly appreciate the progress in her practice.  There's a wellspring of joy I feel whenever one of my clients takes a huge leap of faith, buoyed by our work together or a friend calls to thank me for the support she needed in order to make necessary changes in her life. 
It's a blessing and a privilege to be a witness to their unfolding, to play even a small part in their ongoing journey...and in darling Lilly’s case, to effortlessly enjoy a little piece of peace on my front porch while we watch the flowers bloom.