Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Just One Thing...

In the fall of 2006, I decided that I would leave my teaching job to become a lawyer.

The summer associate position that I accepted began the week before Memorial Day so I realized early in the school year that I was going to need to leave my teaching post before school was out for the summer. 

When Ropes gave me the choice to delay my start date one week, I took it, even though it was financially costly. I wanted to stay with my students as long as I possibly could and I wanted to ensure that they had a smooth transition to the teacher who would take my place for the rest of the year. 

In brainstorming how this could all work best, I had the idea to invite a student teacher into our classroom. He or she could work with my students beginning in the early spring and by the time I had to depart in May, everyone would be comfortable and happy with one another. My department head and my principal were supportive of the plan and that spring, my student teacher arrived. I will call him, "Tony." 

Tony was a fascinating character. He was genuinely kind and hardworking, modest and thoughtful, strong, yet desperately vulnerable. And like almost every first time teacher (including myself), Tony struggled as a student teacher in front of the classroom.

Getting up in front of a room full of teenagers isn't easy for anyone. But eventually, some people find their groove and some people don't. As much as it crushed me (and Tony) to admit it, Tony never did.

In the end, Tony's supervising professor thought it would be best if Tony left his student teaching position. It broke my heart, not because my plan was a total bust, but because Tony wanted to do something that he didn't necessarily have the instincts to do. Finally, I agreed with Tony's supervisor that things weren't working out.

After Tony received this news, he didn't come back into the classroom. But he did write my students a letter. I will never forget that letter.

To be honest, I don't remember exactly what it said, but I know that it was the first time that Tony was himself. He was honest and confident, and even funny, as he told my students why he wasn't going to be with them any longer. I'm not sure they saw it as freshmen in high school, but if they did, that letter would have taught them more than most month-long history units. I know it taught me lessons that I still think of to this day. I also know that if Tony ever found a way to bring the person who wrote that letter into the classroom, he would have become an awesome teacher. 

*  *  * 

Looking back, I realize that I should have done many things so differently for Tony. Despite that I was a pretty good teacher for my students at that point, I was an atrocious teacher for him and while everyone was focused on Tony's failures, no one (including myself) was focused on mine.

I realize the root of my failures -- that pesky control problem (again). Giving up control in my classroom was so very difficult for me. When I sat in the back of the room and watched him teach a lesson that I had taught the period before, I wanted Tony to teach it just like I had. I itched to "fix" all of the "mistakes" that I felt he was making. Meanwhile, I was making a whole host of my own.

In helping to train Tony to become a teacher, my strengths became my weaknesses. I so sincerely wanted to help Tony love teaching as much as I did. I wanted to tell him everything that I had learned in five years and I wanted him to be able to skip over all the time and effort it took me in learning those lessons. I wanted my students to continue on after I left just as they would have continued on if I was there. And I wanted Tony to be someone that he wasn't meant to be.

Don't get me wrong, I was very kind and fair and diplomatic to Tony. But still, I have regrets about how I treated him. Most of all, I regret that I tried to give him too much too fast and I didn't encourage him to find his own style at his own pace. Granted, I didn't want my students to have to sacrifice their own learning in order for him to get there, but, still, everyone needs to start somewhere.

Even though I don't necessarily think it would have worked out however I had behaved, I believe I could have made Tony's experience a better one if I had known then what I know now. But the crazy thing about experience is that we all need to get it in order to learn from it.

*  *  *

In the last few weeks, I have had two different women reach out to me to tell me that they were recently diagnosed with breast cancer. In talking to these women, I have found myself reflecting on my time with Tony. 

While there is part of me that wants to sit down and tell these women 1,000 different things that I have learned over the past year, a more mature part of me knows that I can't and shouldn't do any such thing. These women are about to begin their own journey and while it may have similarities to mine, it will be different. 

I realize now that these women, and many men and women who will, unfortunately, come after them, will have their own moments of darkness, their own reasons that they wind up in those caves, their own ways to get out of them. While I have come to better see and understand the walls of my own caves and my own routes out, I don't pretend to fully understand theirs. 

I realize now that there will be things that bother these women that didn't bother me and obstacles that they coast through that I found to be daunting. No doubt, sharing our experiences will help them and help me, but I know now that no matter how much I wish I could spare them pain that I have felt, there is no shortcut around this formidable life experience. They will earn their victory just like I did. 

So instead of 1,000 pieces of advice for the newly diagnosed, I have just one thing I really want them to know at this stage of their journey:

Because of the incredible advances in modern medicine, because of the angels that will swoop in to care for you, and most of all, because of the unbelievable strength you will find within yourself, you will win. You will beat this. And while your path to victory won't be just like mine, it will be your own. Which, I have no doubt, will make it all the sweeter. 

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