We were given the question at an in-service about the day that we wanted to quit teaching. Every teacher has them and we were asked to keep this private and think about how that might also apply to students and how they feel about school. But as with anything we are told to keep private, we immediately started to share with those around us. I listened to teachers talk about the day they were falsely accused of something that ranged from inappropriate behavior to a simple statement that misunderstood. Conversations also centered on treatment by fellow staff, administrators, and parents. By far, the most were about treatment by the kids and disrespect for the work we are doing and that we are doing our jobs to help them get ahead in life. I listened to all of my friends around and I did something I normally do not do, and that is I kept mine private.
After long and hard consideration I spent some time with the topic. I knew I was a little different and this seemed to highlight my differences. The day I wanted to quit teaching was the day I learned of the passing of one of my students. To this day I use the gentler term of “passing” and I try to not use the harsh words that mean the same thing. I have rarely said “died”, “suicide”, “car accident”, or “terminal disease.” Maybe I hope that by using the softer language the violent and unfairness will drain from the situations. In society, we tend to use much more violent language than we once did and I wonder if it is why we are so fast to violence and over-reaction to things around us. Language has an impact and I suspect I will always use the gentler language when referring to my students. It is difficult but if language can ease the pain a little it is worth it.
The first time I really had this happen was a student that should have never passed away. He was healthy, vibrant, and full of life. He suffered from a prolonged trip to the mountains and passed away on top of a mountain in the Colorado Rockies. I still believe it was so that he could be closer to the God he loved so much. There was no reason for his passing and yet I sat in a church across the street from the school he had just graduated from a few weeks earlier with many of his friends. There was no reason to go back into the classroom the next year. That is the day I wanted to quit teaching. I did not have the strength to sit in this church and tell his friends that it would be alright because I didn’t believe it myself. It wouldn’t be alright and it wasn’t fair. He should go to college, raise a family, and grow in the community that loved him. Why should I try to tell them anything different?
I went back the next year partially for financial needs and partially from the simple fact that I loved working with kids. The student was a theatre student and I had to spend the first part of the next year directing a play in the theatre every day. There were times when I sat in the back of the theatre in the dark, as the kids rehearsed, with tears of anger and sadness in my eyes. I never said anything to anyone about how I felt, even my wife of 20 years. With each day it became easier. But this was only the start of my frustration.
Over the next few years, we would lose students from suicide, tragic accidents, and illness. The most frustrating of the bunch was a young man with a degenerative muscle disease that put him in a wheelchair. We set up a computer workstation for him in my classroom and he discovered a love for design and computer drafting. He had a wonderful eye and eventually move on to the local technical school to study more in-depth. The teacher called me to ask about a student in a wheelchair taking his class and he was afraid that he couldn’t complete the work. I advocated for this young man and he became an inspiration for other students in the program. We always knew he was going to pass away young but that still didn’t ease the pain when he did.
I have truly examined my reasons for walking into class every day and no matter how I want to downplay it by saying I need a job or I like working with the kids, it goes much deeper. I go back into the room every day because it is where I should be and nowhere else would be the right fit. I need the joy, life, and desire to learn that I get from them. I do not believe that the kids are any worse than they have always been and I don’t believe that they don’t want to learn. I believe that every student that walks through the door wants and deserves something from us and often it is not in any textbook.
As I look retirement in the face soon I keep those kids in my heart and stories but I also keep in mind the story of a young man I met my first year teaching high school. I had a passing acquaintance with him and I remember vividly his graduation day. He was in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy that was advancing but he was not willing to accept defeat. We had seen him bound to his wheelchair all of his senior year. He had spent an entire semester working with students in a class and the teacher. He always said he couldn’t wait to “walk” at graduation. But nothing prepared everyone for when he got to the edge of the stage and the ramp, he stood up and walked haltingly across the stage to receive his diploma. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house and the students had kept his secret and to this day anyone who was in the gym that day will never forget that graduation. And, that is why there will never be a day when I truly think about quitting teaching and I hope I never do get to that point.