I have been boxing up my room at school recently, in anticipation of my impending retirement; bringing home the personal items accumulated over the past ten years. After teaching in Alaska 23 years then coming to Washington state, it is amazing to me that a decade has gone by so quickly. I have packed boxes of books, photos of students and cards and letters from them - all contributing to the illustration that I did indeed have an impact. I know that, but these boxes are tangible evidence that I was here. Sort of like writing "Kilroy" on the wall. Or "Brooks was here." I used to write my name and the years on the rafters of the cannery warehouse where I fished in Alaska - evidence, however impermanent, that I was really there, then. The lives we touch as teachers go on. What we do here ends, and so do we. The world continues to turn in circles and more circles.
I never expected to become a teacher. Some people know from the start what they want to do and plan for who they want to become. Not me. I've never been much of a planner. I arrived at teaching in 1973. Had my certificate, even had a job teaching in inner-city Louisville at the Henry Clay School for the Trainable Mentally Handicapped. My first day in my first classroom was hot. Brutally hot and humid - and I was sweating through my shirts as I put up paper on a bulletin board in my first classroom. I was squatting down and finishing the stapling when a thought ran over me like a truck: I'M A TEACHER!" It literally knocked me off my feet and onto my butt on the floor. "Oh my God," I thought. "How did this happen? How did I get here?"
And for the longest moment I replayed the events that led me here: how all I ever wanted to do was write. How I took a wrong turn among many wrong turns in college and ended up as an English instead of Creative Writing major. How I flunked out of school my sophomore year because of all the alcohol and drugs. How I got back in and avoided the draft and Viet Nam by acing two correspondence courses in writing. How Special Education was where the jobs were my junior year, and when it became an option for a major, I jumped at it. How I ended up a student teacher at this school a year before, and fell in love with the kids and the job. How here I was, now.
I thought about my experience as a student in high school: on my own with an alcoholic mother and domineering father, I was one of the "bad kids" - the troublemakers. I ran away from home in high school - twice. I drank, raced cars, smoked cigarettes, skipped classes. Anything to escape the rules and regulations. The second time I ran away I broke into the school with unsuccessful hopes of trashing the administration's records and stealing some cash. I hated school. And five short years later, here I was - sitting on the floor of my very own classroom in the sweltering Louisville heat - a teacher.
I was stunned. I knew the facts of how I had gotten here, but how had I gotten here?!
"What do I do now?" I wondered, suddenly filled again with the existential angst I carried with me most of my adolescence. I briefly considered leaving - just getting up and walking out the door, like I'd done before, but I knew that was the wrong solution. I stared at the blank bulletin board and knew I needed to fill it up before I walked away. The only answer that made any sense to me (and still does) came when I thought of crossing paths with the kids who were just like me in high school. How I could treat them differently - with understanding - when I saw the look in their eyes that I carried in mine during those years. How I needed to do that, for them, certainly, but also for me. For the me that was still there, hating school, hating the rules, hating authority.
"You have to be the best damn teacher you can be, then," I said - out loud. "You have to be there - for them."
I pulled myself to my feet, finished stapling that bulletin board, and for the past 33 years, have tried to do just that. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but I have - most of the time, anyway - tried. That kid inside me that didn't like the rules? He still doesn't. But that's a different story.