Every once in a while, if you’re like me, you have a dream that wakes you up. Sometimes it's a bad dream—a dream in which the shadows become so menacing that your heart skips a beat . . . Sometimes it's a sad dream—a dream sad enough to bring tears to your sleeping eyes . . . or there are dreams that take a turn so absurd that you wake laughing—as if you need to be awake to savor the full richeness of the comedy. Rarest of all is the dream that wakes you with what I can only call its truth. The path of your dream winds now this way, now that—one scene fades into another, people come and go the way they do in dreams—and then suddenly, deep out of wherever it is dreams come from, something rises up that shakes you to your foundations. The mystery of the dream suddenly lifts like fog, and for an instant it is as if you glimpse a truth truer than any you knew that you knew, if only a truth about yourself. It is too much for the dream to hold anyway, and the dream breaks . . . Frederick Buechner—A Room Called Remember
I used to have a dream back when I was teaching. This is how it went: It is early morning. I am getting ready for school as usual. I dress, fix my hair and makeup, gather my briefcase and coffee and books and go out the front door and get on the bus. Not my car, a school bus! I find my seat halfway back on the left side. A girl steps over my feet and sits down by the window. As we begin to talk, I look down and realize that I don’t have a blouse on. The bus is moving but I don’t feel panicked, I just adjust my arms crisscross at my front, hands resting casually on my shoulders, so that no one will be able to tell . . . that I don’t have a shirt on. I get to the high school and my classroom and begin my day, holding my arms in the same position as I teach my six classes. I am exhausted by day’s end, but confident that no one seemed to notice.
Then there was this other dream that visited me near the end of my teaching years. In this dream I am a writer invited to teach a fall semester class at my alma mater in San Diego. In my dream, I can’t find the classroom I am supposed to use. I circle the quads and buildings, hoping for a clue . . . but I never find it, so I don’t go. I’m a no show. Two days later when the second class is scheduled, I know where the classroom is but it takes me so long to walk there—through the eucalyptus groves and the adjoining campuses—that the class is half over when I enter the open door. The students are sitting in desks facing the front or turned chatting across the aisles. They get quiet when I breeze in and put my briefcase on the desk that sits on the diagonal in the far back corner. I move toward the front of the classroom, as if I’m just on time, and began flimflamming my way into a lesson on writing. They reach for pens and notebooks. I entertain a bit more, assign an essay with a long list of parameters, winging a prompt out of my head. They scurry to write it down, copying from the person next to them. I assign reading. Then it’s over and I’m left in an empty classroom.
Interpretting those dreams wouldn’t take a psychologist. It seems fairly obvious that I must have been weary, my mind full of too much when I went to sleep. But perhaps they also hinted at that secret part of me that sometimes felt exposed, ill-prepared, even unworthy of the calling.
While I love the gift of time that retirement brings, I always feel this bit of longing when September arrives and it’s time for school. I miss my classroom, the smell of fresh floor wax and new beginnings, artsy bulletin boards, my name in perfect cursive in the top lefthand corner of the board, the big kids filling the seats each hour . . . faces excited, blank, bored, skeptical. Each making up his or her mind that first day/week about how it’s going to be this year, in Mrs. Jackson’s English class. I love the challenge as I look out at those faces. One of the hardest jobs you’ll ever do . . . yet one of the easiest if you’ve discovered it’s your calling.
I started teaching later than most after staying home with our three kids for twelve years before going back to college and starting to teach. I had teenagers of my own when I entered the high school classroom, so I didn’t scare easily and rarely sent a student to the VP for punishment or help since they’d be sent right back anyway. There was always the option, out in the hall, “That probably wasn’t what you meant to say, but if you’d like to apologize and stay in my class, let’s get this settled since we’re going to be spending the year together.” I’d spent most of my life up front with music so that was a pretty comfortable spot for me. I could drive down the hill every morning with most everything I needed in my head and my briefcase to do this job. And I believed the same things about teaching when I retired twenty years later as I did when I entered that first classroom:
- Teaching is a worthy calling, a vocation. Never lose the vision of who you came to be in this classroom.
- It’s more important who you are, than what you teach.
- Teaching is a team sport. If I have it and it helps you, it’s yours. If you look good in your classroom next door, we all look good. If you ( or I) don’t, well then there’s that.
- There should be no hierarchy in teaching assignments. The very best, most experienced teachers should teach all students, especially the most challenging.
- Every student, regardless of ability or past achievement, should get the cream of the curriculum . . . all the rich goodness of literature opened wide, the opportunity to join the deep discussions and to risk thinking for themselves, whatever it takes. Sometimes all it takes is a mini-Snickers tossed for a correct answer on an oral quiz on the assigned novel. Big kids are still kids.
- Students will rise to your expectations whether it be behavior or academics. They don’t do poorly because we require too much of them, but rather because we require too little. If it’s not working, look at what you are doing.
Yes, my heart is often still in the classroom. But come tomorrow morning, when the sun through the little upstairs window wakes me around 8:30, it’s likely that I won’t have dreamt of riding a school bus without a shirt or not being able to find my classroom. I’ll rise slowly and grind the coffee beans, roll out my old back on my yoga mat, then take my first cup to the porch and sit with the shining lake and my memories, counting my blessings. Time gives and takes away, and gives anew. Gift upon gift.