There is a big brown envelope in my school mailbox on Tuesday. I order a lot of books from Amazon, but this is not from Amazon; it is from Harvard Press. Inside are two copies of the book Inside Our Schools: Teachers on the Failure and Future of Education Reform. I feel a swell of pride because the first chapter in this book is written by me. That’s right. Someone thought that what I had to say about the failure of education reform was good enough to be published in a book that people might buy and read. A sense of satisfaction. That swell of pride lasts the length of my walk to room H103 where I place the books on the counter next to my water bottle and greet students. The first ignores me. The second mumbles something close to ” I want to go home.” Teenagers have a way of putting pride in check.
At the end of the day, I notice the big brown envelope again next to the untouched water bottle and look at the books. A colleague is visiting H103, and I tell her that I have a new book, actually that I wrote a chapter in that new book. She politely picks up a copy and scans the pages. I take a picture of the book and post it on Facebook. The sense of satisfaction re-emerges. I feel a swell of pride again. I pick up the other copy and begin to read what I wrote nearly four years ago. By the second page, I realize that the snapshot of my teaching life that I shared in this book took place a week after my father died. I included an excerpt from a poem I wrote about him in the chapter — a poem I shared in front of these beautiful teenagers who politely witnessed my sadness in H103 years ago.
“Did you really say that?” my colleague asks. I am pulled from my remembering.
“The part about ‘with all due respect, let me do my job’?” she reminds me.
I look for that part and am brought back to another snapshot of my teaching life later in the chapter. I had just returned from a year-long leave of absence. I was burning out and needed a break. I was in the principal’s office learning of my new placement in the school. I uttered the “with all due respect” comment when I was handed a “teacher proof” curriculum and told I had to follow it for fidelity’s sake.
There was no swell of pride that day. My ego was bruised. I had to use that curriculum to keep the job I wasn’t sure I wanted but needed because my husband had just been laid off. I thought my principal liked me, respected me. I thought I had established a pretty good reputation as a teacher (even though I essentially walked away the year prior), that I, at least, had enough clout to do my job without “teacher proof” curriculum, but in that moment, I was put in my place.
“I don’t know what I would have done,” my colleague says. “So you mentioned last week that you are working on another book,” she changes the subject handing me the book.
I take her book, put both books in my bag, wrap my scarf around my neck, and pull on my jacket. I say yes, but I can feel the self-doubt rising in my belly and seeping into my voice.
I say that I have essays from Ethical ELA that I want to shape into, well, something. There’s a book there – maybe. I say that I have lots of unit plans that I think other people might find helpful but then halt my arrogance, admitting that there are good people already doing that work far better than I ever could:Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers. I say my husband wants me to write the story of my family but that it’s not ready. I say I think I’d like to try writing a novel, maybe a verse novel based on my junior year of high school. I say most of this out loud and then feel very embarrassed. I think, do not say, What am I saying? Who do I think I am?
I have caught myself in a prideful rant and pause as my insecurities swell where pride had been. I say that, yes, I wrote a book about reading genocide literature because I had to get it out. I say that I know no one will read it at over $100 a copy. I say that I probably won’t write any of those imagined books because there are smarter people out there, and I should be reading their books.
Then, I think, do not say, why do I write? I think that I write to figure out what I know, even though I usually conclude that I don’t know. I think I write because when I write, I feel like I am making neat and tangible the messy, complicated, beautiful experiences that make up my day and sneak into my dreams (sometimes nightmares). I think I share my writing because why? Attention, validation, support? Why isn’t it enough to just write? Why do I need to put it out into the world? Why do I need to invite others to read it?
As we walk out of H103, I do say, “Who do I think I am? A book about teaching, a novel — geesh? The only thing I know is that I feel no purpose if I am not teaching. Today, I sat in the hallway so my student teacher could go solo, and I felt so insignificant. She did great, by the way. I know that good days usually come after bad days if for no other reason than it is another day. I know that it feels good to say this out loud, but I am no expert. I am right along side every other teacher on this rollercoaster. Who am I to write a book about teaching?”
“You are too hard on yourself, Sarah,” my colleague says. “You’re a good teacher.”
I muster a grin that gently rejects the compliment. I say, “Thirteen years later, I’m right back where I was at the beginning feeling inadequate, never satisfied, questioning my purpose and place in teaching and, well, in this world. And that book? Like the title, I get the failure, but I just don’t know about the future.”
She gives me a knowing smile. I thank her for listening, exit the building, and walk to my car. I take the book out of my bag then set it face down on the seat.
When I get home, I put one book on my husband’s area of the kitchen counter with my chapter marked. I take the other book to the sofa and begin to look through the chapters. I check Facebook and see a few people have liked my post about the book. I feel good about the likes, and then I feel embarrassed for promoting myself; still, I don’t delete the post. What is this about? On one hand, I like the validation that comes with views and likes, but on the other hand I feel arrogant (i.e., an exaggerated sense of my own importance or abilities) and prideful, which feels yucky.
My husband gets home, sees the book, opens the book, recognizes my name, and asks me if he has to read my chapter; he asks me how many pages it is; he turns the pages in the chapter and tells me that it will take him a month to read it. I stare. Then, he sits on the sofa beside me and reads. I pretend I am reading, too, but feel his eyes on my words and listen to him turning the pages. I desperately want him to see the part about my dad. What is this about, this desperate moment? Attention? Validation? Support? And why do I feel bad for wanting that?
I write this thinking.
I read my thinking a few days later.
I decide that I think I know what my public writing is about: It is about having a witness. I want my husband to witness the moment I shared the poem about my dad even if it was four years later. I want my husband to witness my accomplishment: a chapter in a book. I want my husband to be proud of me for doing something important with my life, for being brave enough to share it all. I want other teachers to witness my experiences, too. I want them to be alongside me in my most vulnerable moments and even the prideful ones because I think they understand. When someone reads my posts or chapter or book, that someone becomes a witness to my life. I exist.
My writing is my testimony.
National Poetry Month is comes at an opportune time for me. I will take a break from writing about teaching for a while. Instead, I will be a student of poetry alongside the teachers and students who will share this virtual space with me. I will be their witness and they mine as we make sense of our worlds with and through verse. Will you join us?