I have rarely been so grateful for the weekend to arrive. I could hardly recognize myself this week — so overwhelmed and anxious I heard alarm bells going off inside my brain. It felt like it was caused by lazy students having a mutiny, but it couldn’t be that simple, and I’m wondering if I am creating my own reality in order to make it easier to leave. Makes me sound like a belligerent teenager, doesn’t it? I hope that’s not the case! Let’s examine the evidence.
The eighth grade trip to Washington, DC is coming up in a couple of weeks. It has always been my job to prepare the students for that trip; I designed a unit about memorials and why they are important, and taught them about our expectations for their behavior in the many different kinds of places the group visits. Last year, since I had relinquished the task of trip coordinator, our new social studies teacher and I taught the unit together so that she would know how I approach the material. We had planned to repeat the process this year, but with my own classes lagging behind, I decided that I would have to bow out, leaving her to teach the material alone. On Monday afternoon, we met to talk about it, and I gave her my many posters and books about Washington. When we finished, and I was packing the posters back into their portfolio for her to take away, I suddenly felt a lump in my throat about the finality of it all. I expressed my feelings out loud, and she kindly offered not to take the materials. I reassured her that no, it was OK for me to feel sad, and I wanted her to have everything. And that was very true. But I had been so wrapped up in the eighth grade project work for ELA class that my feelings took me by surprise, and I went home and wrote a poem about it, thinking that would make it all OK. Perhaps it didn’t.
Eighth grade students are complex creatures, if I may speak metaphorically. They are the center of their own universes, and their social lives are of paramount importance. School is somewhere maybe halfway down the list of priorities. Of course it’s never accurate to make such universal judgments, and there are exceptions to the rule, but this week, it felt to me like most students had planned a mutiny against turning in work. (I had caught some of the girls looking online at prom dresses when they should have been researching their heroes.) We were at the end of a month-long writing project, and as of Wednesday there were only ten students in the whole class with passing grades. I realize now that I took it as a personal attack and it simply pushed me right over the edge. I turned into a shrew, meeting with school administration to devise a plan on how best to deal with the situation. We got through the week – Friday was Spring Fling and scheduled classes were cancelled, which compounded my stress level about a thousand percent – but no blood was shed, and most of the students managed to turn in most of the work.
I write this on Saturday morning, feeling a little bit like I’ve been run over by a truck, but with more ability to think logically. I was definitely not myself last week; I was downright nasty.
Being the coordinator of the Washington trip for so many years was important to me, and I loved it deeply on several levels. First, it took me back to my own roots; I had lived a quick bus ride away from DC as a child, and my mother took me into the city often, teaching me each time about our country’s history and government. Going to Washington, DC is like going home for me, and I passed that gift along to my students, taking personal ownership in the whole experience. I prepared the kids beforehand, helped to teach them while we were there about the places we visited, made the decisions about where we would go, and culminated the experience upon our return with follow-up responsive writing and project work.
Second, for most of the years of the DC trips, I was also teaching social studies, with special emphasis on the Cold War and Vietnam. Teaching about Vietnam was definitely the most personally rewarding accomplishment of my career. Taking my students to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was the ultimate culminating event of that extensive and effective teaching unit. I know that my students learned deeply from that unit because so many of them have told me how it’s the one thing they still remember even after many years have passed; I truly appreciate all those messages of affirmation.
And now: an epiphany. While I am not part of any component of the Washington trip any longer, I’ve felt like at school I have to pretend it doesn’t matter. My meltdown was caused by an overload of emotion, about letting go and wanting everything to be perfect this year. I realize now that I’m more sad about it and less able to shake it off than I had realized. While my brain is trying to deal with giving away my materials, a relatively minor bump in the road turned into a major sinkhole and I fell in. Students not turning in work is something I have dealt with hundreds of times, and this week’s issue should not have measured so high on the Richter scale.
I’m not sure what I can do about it; how do I help myself grieve this enormous loss? Discovering the true cause of my meltdown should serve as a start in figuring out how to deal with this loss, but at the moment I don’t know what I need. Going on the trip one last time is definitely NOT the right solution. It would not be “my” trip, and I would probably hate having to deal with the changes that have been put in place over the last two years. Whining about it isn’t going to help either. As with many things in my life, it seems to come back to writing, which makes one more confirmation that writing is where my future lies; and so I start here, with this public confession. It helps a little. I think next week’s blog article might be about teaching the Vietnam unit.
Thanks for reading.