Paradise

When I started this essay in April, I was walking with Rusty, my golden retriever friend. Tiny darting birds were dipping and zigging across the street. A late snow had sugared the Sandias, and I was kicking tumbleweeds off the sidewalk while more tumbleweeds went skipping down the street. Rain clouds were tilting at the sky. I was trying to figure out why the year had seemed so hard. A few weeks earlier in another essay I didn’t finish, I had written that the year was all wax and no wane.

Now it’s half past June already, and the summer keeps racing on. It’s father’s day, but I don’t want to write about that this year. I’m thinking about the “8 words” a CNN anchor noted in a story about Charleston this morning. “The doors of the church are still open.”

When my students get stuck in their writing, I tell them to write the problem into their work. Someone important taught me that. (Ann Lamott? Annie Dillard? Nick Hornby? Anyone want to take credit? ) So here’s the problem, at least as it stood through the end of May. I’m stuck. I haven’t posted a blog in months. I’ve started essays and abandoned them. I’ve stayed in bed instead of getting up to write. I’ve spent hours writing lesson plans that should have taken ten minutes. I’ve stopped exercising, stopped even trying to eat things that are good for me. And all that was before my husband broke his ankle.

And it wasn’t just my writing life that fell apart. My life as a teacher went off-kilter, too. It was one of those years when the things I did poorly loomed so much larger than the things I did well. I kept thinking about the kids I didn’t reach; the project that didn’t teach what it should have; the way the big problems of the world–racism, sexism, anti-Semitism–kept manifesting in my school. I finished May thinking about the weight I’d gained, the writing habit that had fizzled, the fact that I hadn’t ridden my bike or gone for a good run since last September.

The problem with not posting essays frequently is that fear creeps in. I start telling myself things like, “No one wants to hear you complain.” And believe me, I get it. I work in a small, private, independent school. A whole wall of windows in my classroom looks out on a grassy quad where art students wrap tree trunks with bright colored ribbons and yarn. Children and puppies frolic (seriously—I chose that verb deliberately) on the lawn. Sometimes on the seniors’ last day of school someone sets up a barbecue grill or a slip’n slide. On rare snowy days, someone always builds a snowman. I don’t even want to hear myself complain.

Here’s more. Students and teachers enjoy one another at my school. Geese lay eggs on top of Patrick Dougherty land art and their babies float around on our pond, squeaking at the turtles sunning themselves on logs. Sometimes a snake or a pheasant shows up by a window outside the library, or a roadrunner with a lizard squirming in his beak darts by the classroom I used to teach in. Between the pond and the cottonwoods I can pick basil or kale or hot peppers to take home for dinner. One day so many crows were flapping in the trees outside my classroom that a student who had just discovered The Birds was getting a little freaked out.

It’s all a bit too much, isn’t it? I’m trying to tell you that I teach in paradise. We broke ground on the building I teach in just as the recession was getting underway. Every day, as the stock market tumbled and homes were repossessed, I watched a new building rise out of our dusty parking lot and felt like the world was going to be ok. Walking into the lobby of that building every morning now, I’m greeted by a beautiful double-sided fireplace flanked by walls of bookshelves. Vaulted glassy ceilings let in sunlight and amplify the pounding of the rain when it storms. It’s beautiful here.

And yet. I had a really hard year. So hard that I spent a good third of it plotting my (aborted) exit strategy. One day I asked a colleague I ran into outside his classroom how he was doing, and he said, “Oh, you know, another day, another bunch of missed opportunities.” I knew exactly what he meant. Every year as a teacher, you do what you can, and you worry about what you didn’t do.

This was also one of those years when fear kept poking its head out from behind the bulky curtain I use to pretend it isn’t there. It was the kind of year when kids kept reminding me that we’re soft-shelled creatures; that skin is a ridiculously flimsy and porous outer barrier to hold against the world.

This was a year when I stopped going deep.

In late April of this hard year, the parents threw us a Teacher Appreciation dinner where they showered us with gifts. This celebration followed a week of pies, and burrito breakfasts, and chair massages. After this year’s dinner I went home with gift certificates for dinner at The Quarters and a pair of kick ass emerald green cowboy boots. This year, my school undertook a video project where every teacher was asked to record herself teaching. The administrators did it first. We were offered a variety of protocols for reviewing the video, all of them designed to remove fear and create a supportive learning environment. I was allowed to drive the process, to ask for the feedback I wanted from teachers I trust. I am thanked and supported regularly. I do not lose teaching time to state-mandated tests that purport to determine my worth as a teacher or get asked to implement new strategies that may or may not resonate with my own practice every time I turn around. I’m trying to tell you that I teach in paradise.

But here’s the thing. Paradise is a gated community.

It turns out St. Peter really is standing at the gate, checking his list. It costs families more than twenty thousand dollars to send one child to paradise for one year. We offer as much financial aid as we have, but we’re far from being a place any child could attend. This fall I was conducting a tour around campus at our admissions open house when one little girl asked if we ever give full scholarships. We don’t. I dodged the question, and she continued, “Because if it costs more than a few dollars, I won’t be able to come here.” It can be heartbreaking to teach in paradise.

So here’s what I’m wondering about on this Sunday afternoon, now that the school year has ended and I’m trying to re-find my voice. How do you rejoice in paradise when what you really want to do is tear down the walls to let everyone in? What is the nature of the responsibility that someone who teaches in paradise bears toward someone on the other side of the gate? How do you teach kids gratitude without accidentally teaching them superiority? How do you use the freedom to experiment, the gift of teaching in a beautiful facility where all the supplies I need are stocked down the hall by the copier, to do something other than perpetuate the inequity in the world? How do you bear that responsibility justly? Can you?

It’s sweltering in Albuquerque today. The west mesa is oddly green and the Rio Grande is running high. I’ve come to the end of a hard year simultaneously grateful for and embarrassed by the bounty in my job. If we’ve all got #first world problems, I’ve got first world problems in a private school.

I know that teachers, by nature, believe in the world imagined. I finished the year reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man with my 11th graders. As the main character struggles to the end trying to make sense of his grandfather’s deathbed advice, he contemplates leaving his bright basement hole. He affirms, “Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and the light is the truth.”

If I could write a plan for schools like mine, the first draft would read something like this: “We live in a country with a deep history of racism, sexism, classism, and anti-Semitism. This history continues to manifest itself in our world in ways that some of us have the luxury not to see. Private schools, positioned as we are inside the gates of privilege, have a unique imperative to make this history visible, to best equip our students to be responsible, big-hearted actors in the world.”

It’s summer after a hard year in paradise and the world continues to lurch from loss to love. This morning people in Charleston, South Carolina, who know more about the weariness of pain and loss than I will learn in ten lifetimes, said “The doors of the church are still open.” It turns out this same flimsy, porous skin lets it all in—loss and pain and horror and sunlight and love. Ralph Ellison says that, too. As the narrator contemplates his return to life beyond his basement hole, he says, “I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of it all, I find that I love.”

It’s June, and I’m writing again. Sixteen hundred words and not an answer in sight. I’m still searching for a way to end this essay. I always tell my students not to give their closing words to someone else, but I’m breaking that rule today. In a line that’s always haunted me, Ralph Ellison’s invisible man says, “But we are all human, I thought, wondering what I meant.“

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4 thoughts on “Paradise”

  1. I love your writing and your view, though ever since reading this, I’ve wanted to submit my wife’s experience as a math teacher in a middle school with a mix of “magnet” and “neighborhood” kids (“neighborhood” being the euphemism of the moment). Going into the process, she probably shared your (and my) progressive(?) instincts about the education process being something that should be open and available to everyone. And yet, in Ann’s experience, there was undeniably a cost to be paid when the teaching environment in “paradise” can be so easily derailed by one or two students who can’t or won’t participate, but instead disrupt the environment for everyone. The solutions always seem to point back in time to earlier schooling, home environment, and/or family values that simply can’t be fixed at middle school. Against my hopes and wishes, your question “How do you rejoice in paradise when what you really want to do is tear down the walls to let everyone in?” comes up against the alternative question, “How do you rejoice in paradise when … you … tear down the walls to let everyone in?”

    1. Your thoughtful comment deserves a more thoughtful response than this one, but I wanted to at least say something soon, rather than wait until I had time to craft a more elaborate response. I know that my experience differs dramatically from that of teachers in public schools (and I suspect I would have bailed long ago if my work were as hard as theirs is), but that said, I don’t accept the premise that the cost you mention arises because less privileged kids enter the school. Those “one or two kids” exist across income and opportunity levels. The difference in my work might be the fact that teachers have abundant resources to call upon for help so that it isn’t already impossible to deal with a child’s needs by middle school. I think every child deserves to live in that world.

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