[Editor’s note: Miss Brave is the pseudonym for a first-year elementary school writing teacher.]
Phillip: “Miss Brave, what’s your last name?”
Miss Brave: “Brave is my last name.”
Alejandro: “Then what’s your real name?”
Miss Brave: “Well, Brave is my real last name.”
Phillip: “No, what’s your first name?”
Miss Brave: “That’s a secret.”
Phillip: “I won’t tell nobody!”
* * *
Changes are in the air. My students are starting to come to school wearing gigantic puffy jackets, staggering under the weight of their oversized hoods (small children in rain gear are the cutest, followed closely by winter accessories). Most days I watch the sun rise from the fourth floor of our school; it won’t be long before I’m watching it set there too.
Changes are in the air for Michael: When he came to kindergarten two months ago, his round chubby face was nearly always screwed into a pout, and he threw a fit if another student so much as looked at him. Now he’s landed a starring role in the stories of the other kids at his table (“This is me and Michael at the park”; “This is me and Michael going to Toys R Us”), and he listens, beaming, as his tablemates sing his praises as a friend.
Changes are in the air for Ms. N’s ESL second grade: When I met them, I instantly dismissed them as my most challenging class, full of kids who literally did not stop talking for one instant, ever, with a handful who spent their time spinning around in circles or wandering around the room without asking to leave their seats. Then I read their writing, spoke to their teacher and realized that they’re smart kids who are hungry for attention. Now I’ve fallen in love with them despite myself and that class is one of my favorites; more than any other, they respond to positive reinforcement, and I’ve never seen a group of second graders get more excited about locating all the adjectives in a story we wrote together.
Changes are in the air for Ms. L’s second grade: In our last meeting, I happened to turn around just in time to see Julio carefully aiming the paper airplane he had constructed out of the paper on which he should have been writing. I snatched it out of his hand before he took flight, fixed him with a deadly glare, and asked, “Is this what you think of the work you’ve been doing?” My voice rose until I was addressing the whole, rowdy, misbehaving, defiant, obnoxious class: “Because when you make paper airplanes out of your work, instead of asking someone else to help you figure out what to do, you’re telling me that you think that what you do is just garbage. And you’re wrong. Because you can do better. You are all intelligent. But you need to show that to me. Because now, it’s just garbage.” I crumpled up the airplane and threw it in the trash. It was my Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers, Matthew Perry in The Ron Clark Story, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds moment. Only later I realized: My voice wasn’t quavering like it used to. They didn’t scare me; they just pissed me off. Maybe that was a breakthrough.
Changes might be in the air for me, too, but it’s more difficult to explain. Lately I’ve found myself imagining what I might do next year with my own class, or how I might fare at a school outside the NYC public school system. I still don’t think I want to be a teacher forever; I still think it’s highly likely that I don’t want to be a teacher next year. But I know 100% that I don’t want to be a writing cluster teacher next year … which still leaves open the possibility that I might be able to accept doing something else. Now that I’ve survived this long, winter break seems just around the corner. And the cold, biting air never tasted so sweet.