The one question every person in this profession faces is the ubiquitous “Why do you teach?” (The most recent comes from Sherman Dorn). It comes from kids, parents, friends, and family. I don’t know whether it’s out of pride or pity. Everyone can list their favorite teachers and most hated teachers, and those people usually had a greater influence on their lives than the teachers even recognize.
After all, I can tell you how coming from the Lower East Side, growing up in the projects where one resident compared this area in the mid-90s as a modern-day Beirut with the residue of 1980’s drug warfare and Giuliani fascism, with so many Black and Brown faces falling that Chico might have run out of paint to make those famous murals for them. I’ve seen enough roses, hearses, ambulances, arrests, little blue bags, blue, green, purple, single mothers, and red caps to write my own gangsta rap. Some of my own cousins come in and out of jail like a revolving door, and even some of the kids I grew up with were crack babies wishing for some peace in their minds. I slept with the sounds of gunshots and arguments outside my window and woke up with the same elements. People in my hood actually killed each other over a pair of sneakers or some brand new toy. As proud as I am to have come from all of that, that’ll be enough for anyone who’s even caught a glimpse of the better life to want out immediately.
I was one of the fortunate few to make it out with some sense of integrity, though other more personal issues plagued my soul. At times the only sanity I had was the rituals and routines we had in school. I knew I could count on learning and expressing myself academically, and no one could tell me different. I can personally tell you every great and not-so-great teacher I’ve had since elementary school. I couldn’t tell you much about college other than the activism and the parties, but that’s all extracurricular. Yet, even the teachers I hated had some influence as to why I teach.
I remember my language arts teacher in 7th grade, who, for anonymity’s sake, I’ll just refer to as Mr. D (and no, D /= dick, but just the same). He was a tall man who always had some nervous head movement, probably from too much coffee, and he spoke so sharply, he could’ve scratched his chalk against the board and that might have been more pleasant. He didn’t have a nurturing bone in his body. Rather than help me out when I tried to understand the present participle, he would just argue with me and act like I was trying to best him. Rather than showing me the difference between saying “What happened?” versus “Excuse me,” he’d make me write “What happened?” 1000 times (no hyperbole here, folks). Thanks to him, I not only remember the lack of efficiency in that assignment, I learned the meaning of carpal tunnel very early.
He’s not the only one either. There’s the dozens of teachers who opted to ignore me because it’s easiest to ignore the only “Black kid” in an all-honors class, who would rather throw me out of class than hear me out, or who found it easiest to suppress my inclination towards knowing my history because it’d be much easier to express their conservative views for their own pleasure. Easy pickings for a teacher when the student’s submissive.
Yet, without a doubt, I can honestly say that I’ve had some of the greatest teachers from elementary school onwards. To simply list them would be a disservice for everything they’ve done for me. And this is why I teach: not only is this a job for me, but it’s an understanding that I’ll pay forward what I’ve been given. There are teachers in our system who are case studies for the retraction of tenure, but the teachers I’ve had by and large not only made me the man I am, but gave up so much of themselves to be figures of inspiration for me. I did my end, working hard to achieve the heights I did, but when I got out of line, they disciplined me. When I needed the encouragement, I got it and tenfold. I remember their ability to make me feel like everything I had to say was important, and my thoughts mattered, and for someone with the aforementioned history, it means a million.
That and all the vast experiences from acting and singing in front of thousands to my activism and organizations helped me hone my strongest qualifications for teaching. And NYCTF almost didn’t give me a chance, but I must have lucked out. Either way, I took the opportunity, and ran with it as far as I could. I’m still running, too.
Because despite my difficulties with my homeroom, my administration, or other teachers, when I walk into my classroom, I’m given another reason to love what I do. Whether it be a student who, for a day, had an epiphany that he or she would be the best student in the class, or the teacher who’s got another student anecdote, I’m loving it. I’m not just a teacher who gets off on random praise from people. I love the feeling of an accomplished lesson. In some ways, I even love my failures because they teach me something about me as a person, not just a teacher. I’m overwhelmed usually with the amount of work I have to do with my kids, but I can never complain about this job getting too boring. I get a thrill knowing I have a set of audience members for my show from 8-3. Quite the contrary, I like how everyday there’s a new set of problems for me to solve, and even as I’m teaching my kids math, I’m learning along with them.
Now, I’m in the process of refinement, making steady progress towards getting my kids prepared for the state math test coming in March. I want to seek victory from the experiences I’ve gained this year, but it’ll come one day at a time. And to think, I was told by another teacher that it was my idealism that would prevent me from becoming the best teacher possible. To paraphrase Bobby Knight, “When my time on Earth is gone, and my activities here are past, I want that they bury me so they can kiss my ass.”
jose, who was just given the best blog of the day. i think i’ve arrived …