Staring at Walls

By Kerry McNamara

As a high school teacher I have spent a lot of time looking up into the corners of my classroom, convinced I am on a reality television show. Perhaps this is my own wishful thinking in hopes that someone will bear witness to the words exchanged, the strange actions, the joy, the tears, and the comedy that takes place every day in my classroom. I pretend the world is watching, waiting to see how I will react, waiting to see if I will laugh or cry, if I will get angry or lose control, if I will carry on. I have often caught myself in the midst of brewing emotion, making the conscious decision to stop and look up. I stare deeply into the walls, shake my head and smile. Not this time, I think. Good try, but not this time.

I am convinced I have pleased the producers of my reality show with my fifteen years of development — or perhaps I have repelled them, depending on the channel. My fresh young tears have abated, and my experience has enhanced my sense of humor and increased my tolerance. I no longer take myself or my job too seriously — there are things that matter more.

I began my teaching career at a small, rural Catholic school in Canada and have taught for the last eight at a city school in Virginia. In both settings I have learned that the best shield for teaching any teenager is the realization that it’s not personal – even when it feels as if it is, it isn’t. Teenagers are unrestrained reactions, and teachers just happen to get in the crossfire. We take the brunt of a bad morning, a tumultuous break up, a parental dispute, a hungry stomach, an eviction, a sick mom, a missed period, a drug induced father, a failed test. It is our job to be the stronghold, to provide a place of stability and responsibility. I always figure if, in spite of this chaos kids show up for my class, then I owe them, if nothing else, a calm, reliable, safe place.

Experience has taught me to spot the tough ones right away. They enter the classroom on the first day either excessively loud or desperately quiet. The giveaways are those who enter with a scowl so deeply branded on their face that it marks them like a fixed stamp. I always gear up for this first day, embracing the lost pounds that my nervous stomach promotes and accepting the sleepless nights that mark the end of my summer. I know this day is pivotal to the whole year. It is a game of terrain, and I know I must clearly establish my territory, or I will fight for it for the rest of the year.

I remember well my first day of teaching. At that small Catholic high school in Canada, 20 miles from the US Canadian border, separating Buffalo and Fort Erie, many of the students came from farming families or had international parents, where one worked in the US. The school was on a four-by- four semester system, and that first year I was assigned to one section of ninth grade English and two sections of eleventh grade English – both were what Canadians refer to as college level. The school had recently amalgamated levels. The previous year there were three levels of English classes: basic, college, university, but this year they collapsed basic and college together in order to become “less exclusive” (or more likely to save money). As a slight twenty-five year old female and was scared to death. I was thankful for a school uniform as it seemingly marked my only separation from the students, even though, on that first morning, the sweet attendance secretary still asked if I was lost when she found me checking my mailbox in the main office.

My only other memory of that day was the gloomy advice offered by my hoary department chair: Remember kid, don’t smile till Christmas, accompanied by a too hard pat on the back. It was going to be a tough year.

I spent most of my nights organizing content and planning lessons and my days struggling to maintain order in the classroom. The students could sense my young fear and threatened my territory constantly. My days became a blur, and my nights were consumed with work. I was completely overwhelmed and, with the few spare moments I had, I searched for new jobs, convinced I had chosen the wrong one.

Thankfully, as time passed, I learned how to navigate better. As my comfort with the content improved, my acknowledgement of students deepened.  I began to connect better with them and became more flexible in my lesson plans. Instead of obsessing over covering everything on my plan, I learned to pay attention to the needs of my students and finally began to perceive them as separate beings. One particular student whom I will never forget was a sweet 9th grade girl named Maggie. I only noticed her because of her writing. She wrote a compelling piece about her father dying that summer during heart surgery. I remember reading this piece after school in the confines of my modest portable that sat in the back of the school. Her words were saturated with loss as she retold her wearisome tale. Her story forced me to relive my own experience and remember my own father’s heart surgery that same summer. I relived the length of that long night of waiting, and remembered the feeling of relief, when the surgeon announced that my dad would be okay. Poor Maggie had never felt that relief and her words clearly revealed her fresh feelings of sorrow and loss. As my quiet tears fell onto these sad pages I couldn’t help but glance at the walls surrounding me. I stared into them so deeply, it was as if my thoughts penetrated them, allowing me to see things more clearly. Life was so unfair, I thought, and I was so lucky.

The next day when I returned these graded assignments I kept Maggie’s and asked her to stay after class for a moment: I felt I owed her a discussion. I told her how beautiful her writing was and thanked her for telling me her story. She stared at the ground, embarrassed.

“I can’t imagine how hard this must have been for you and your family,” I said, trying to lure her sad eyes up to mine. “Maggie,” I said, pleading for some confirmation “are you okay?”

“No” she said fighting back tears. “It never gets better,” she whispered. Her heavy sobs broke free from her small body as she collapsed into my arms. Wouldn’t the producers be pleased! Maggie became my favorite student that year and worked hard to regain her youthful happiness again.

Another student I recall from that first year was Joel Moore. He was a football player in my 11th grade class whose large frame helped carry the weight of his enormous attitude. He scared me. I remember battling with him constantly; his rude and defiant tone always unsettled me, and I developed a growing sense of dread when his class entered my room. I tried a variety of disciplinary methods with him, but nothing seemed to work, and my phone calls home were never answered or returned. I remember one particularly difficult day when I had assigned him an after-school detention which he predictably ignored. I knew he had football practice, so I marched out to field to tell his coach that he was supposed to be in my room serving detention.  He yelled loudly, motioning for him to come off the field. I could feel Joel’s rage as we silently walked side by side to the empty portable. I instructed him to sit down as I handed him packet of all his unfinished work. “Complete this and then you can go back to practice,” I instructed. “I have to make copies for tomorrow, so I will be back in two minutes.”

A mistake. When I returned to the empty room there were tread marks and mud on the top of every desk in the room, including mine, and his torn packet sat crumpled on the ground in front of my desk. I walked slowly over to pick up the destroyed pages, and uncontrolled sobs overtook me. I knelt on the ground and hid my face in my hands. How could I have been such an idiot?

After a few minutes, I raised my head and stared at the front of the room. I knew I had a decision to make: I could sit here crying like a little girl or I could go fight the battle. I took a deep breath, wiped my face, stood up and marched back out to the field.

When I described the condition of my room to the coach, he worked hard to contain his growing fury. He politely apologized, told me not worry and go home– he would take care of it. I was relieved, and as I walked away, I heard a storm of profanity from the coach’s mouth. When I returned the next morning, my room was spotless.  There were no more confrontations from Joel in my classroom, and despite my overly desperate pleasantries to him, he never spoke a word to me again. At times, I felt him glare at me with such quiet disdain, that I could barely breathe. I couldn’t wait for this year to be over. Strangely, two months later Joel was hit and killed by a car while walking across the Queen Elizabeth highway. The driver was devastated, and no one ever seemed to understand what he was doing on that dark highway in the middle of the night. I had mixed feelings about this event. I knew I should have been devastated, the death of any young person is tragic; however, it did not seem overly surprising to me. Regretfully, I decided not to attend the funeral.

Sadly, over the years, I have seen too many students seek to destroy themselves. The world is a tough place and it is hard for kids to break free their own, sometimes harsh, environments. As a teacher, I simply do the best I can within the confines of my classroom to model the respect and behavior I hope to receive, but have learned to be a strong disciplinarian when necessary. Aggressive behavior is never tolerated and the safety of myself and others is always my first priority.  

New teachers always get the lowest level classes with the worst behaved kids – the classes no one wants to teach. This makes no logical sense, and everyone knows it. But it doesn’t matter, it’s just the way that it is. I painfully “paid my dues” at this school for three years, and when two senior teachers retired, I was lucky enough to win myself all advanced classes, specifically a senior level Writer’s Craft elective. This class, unknowingly, would became the most joyful class I would ever teach, and these wonderfully talented students made me adore teaching. I wish I had appreciated them more, because their talent and love of writing has remained unmatched by any students I have taught since.

 I specifically remember teaching them Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar. Four girls become so enamored with her writing that I called them my “Sylvia girls.” When the biographical film, Sylvia was released we all piled into my Honda Civic and drove across the border into Buffalo to a small alternative theater that was showing it. Afterwards, we hung out at a cool little coffee shop and debated the worthiness of the film. They were brilliantly passionate about literature and writing, and I loved them. This Writer’s Craft class became a network of deep conversation, and the writing produced in that room was intimate and insurmountable. Two out of four of my Sylvia girls became English teachers, one became an artist, and the other, a writer.

 When I moved from Canada to Virginia eight years ago, I knew that I would drop off the “good class” seniority list and fall straight to the bottom. When I began teaching for Virginia Beach City Public Schools, I was assigned the classes no one wanted: 10th grade and 12th grade core/inclusion. These classes were a mixture of nice, but not overly smart kids, smart and defiant kids, special education kids, and kids who never came to school. My only advantage was that I had six years of experience behind me, so content and bullshit were not things I stressed about. I knew the game well and was well armed on the first day. My most thankful asset those first few years was a beautiful, six-foot tall special education teacher named Sarah. She taught me how to enjoy the tough kids, embrace the special ones, and not sweat the small stuff. She was a joy to share a classroom with.

I recall one particular senior special education class from three years ago. Having proven my competency as a teacher, I was given some freedom with content, and I decided to incorporate a new unit into the curriculum: Social Justice. Initially, no students understood this term, so I developed specific lessons on examples of social justice issues, using media clips, articles, and websites. I had laptops in the room with specific instructions which led students to various websites where they learned about such issues as genocide, AIDS in Africa, poverty, gender equity, and clean water. It was great. I was teaching them real world things that mattered!

After two weeks of enlightenment, I assigned the students their final project. They were required to select a social justice topic, research it (using the worksheet provided), and create a brochure clearly outlining the causes, consequences, and advocates. They were also to include a clear “call to action” and list things that we, as a community could do to help. I reserved the computer lab for them to work in the following class and allowed them to select a partner in order to share the work. I was going to be absent the next day, but felt good about leaving them with Sarah, a substitute, and a clear goal. They worked diligently on these projects and presented them the day I returned. I was hopeful, confident that I had instilled a new social awareness in these students, and wasn’t at all prepared for the vast misunderstanding that was about to occur.

The first group dragged themselves to the front of the room (with coaxing from Sarah) and nervously held their brochure while the elected speaker stumbled to read the information. They presented on Sweetshops (their misspelled version of Sweatshops), and their call to action was to make our own clothes. Another group presented on Eating Disorders, and their call to action for curing anorexia was to hold a bake sale. A final group presented their social justice topic on Homicide and their call to action was a car wash. I stared silently into walls in awe. Wow, I thought, this is good.  I was speechless. Thankfully, Sarah was valiantly at the front of the room praising the groups for their efforts. I glanced into the corners, hoping someone from the outside world was witnessing this catastrophe. When the bell finally went and the kids left the room, I looked at Sarah and we both burst into laughter. We laughed so hard that our eyes cried and our bellies ached. Even today, when I recall this memory, it makes me laugh and puts everything into the proper perspective.

I’m currently on my eighth year of teaching in Virginia and have finally re-earned myself all honors level classes. My days are much easier now, and I have the privilege of really being able to enjoy my students. The content is now deeply embedded in my mind, and although I do still try to incorporate some new and current material, it is not something I worry about anymore. I comfortably allow my students to teach me how to use new technologies in my classroom, and hardly ever have any discipline problems — smart kids don’t usually get into trouble and if they do, I deal with everything “in house.” There certainly aren’t as many funny misunderstandings as my special ed. days with Sarah, but there are occasional funny moments, like this year when one of my senior honors students presented Coleridge’s poem “Limbo” to the class, and continuously referred to the dance, surprised that the game was popular back then. So much for theology! Smiling, I glanced up to that familiar corner, hoping they too heard the comments. I still have the amusing vision of Coleridge and Wordsworth drunkenly dancing to this song, arching backwards trying to get under without touching the stick. It would make a great t-shirt.

 There have been many defining moments in my career as a teacher. The monumental events are most clearly etched in my memory and get the best ratings; however, it is not these that keep me in the classroom. Instead it is the small victories, the seemingly insignificant moments that matter the most – the warm greeting I get at the door each morning, the smile when I show up to a basketball game, the joy when my senior gets into her first choice college, the look of amazement when my sophomore finally writes a proper thesis, the joy of watching students make connections between content and real life, the funny stories that make the entire class laugh. These are my favorite moments and although they do not get much interest from reality show producers, they truly are the reasons why teachers keep teaching.