My palms were sweaty, my knees were shaking and my heart was going a mile a minute. No, I hadn’t just completed a 10K run—although sometimes at the end of the day I feel as though I have. It was the first day of my teaching career, and I was petrified.
Fresh out of college, I got a job teaching middle school literature to about 75 tweens—which at first glance equaled sheltered misfits that were posing as electric Chihuahuas—who needed desperate enlightenment in the field of Poe and Stargirl. (Because, after all, that’s the category we all fell into throughout middle school, right?)
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I never learned as much as I did that year. The kids? Far from sheltered. While they didn’t always get my references to Black Eyed Peas genre-breaking style being similar to Tennyson’s urge for future poets to keep the Victorian vibe going, they had been through earth shattering scenarios that made even my "not so sheltered" ears burn. From suicidal tendencies to making up a rumor—about me—to gain popularity, I realized that I indeed was in the Twilight Zone: Middle School Edition.
However, slowly my heart began to form a protective covering over these precious students of mine. I began worrying about them over breaks. I cried with them, laughed with them, and at times, wanted to scream at them. I began a Bible study with my 7th grade girls and looked forward to every Wednesday morning when I would show up in the dark and have about four already there, waiting for me. I jumped for joy when my 7th grade class read E.E. Cummings’ "the little horse was newly" and understood it. (Who understands Cummings, anyway?)
I counseled many students in the joys and heartache of young love. And yeah, it was mostly heartache.
On the last day of school, it hit me how much I’d fallen in love with these kids who had scared me stupid the first day of school. One of the family’s neighborhood club had a pool party, and I stopped in for one final goodbye to my homeroom class. The students and parents had conveniently planned a going away/wedding present for me, which I received amidst sprays of water from vehement clapping and teary smiles that refused to leave my side.
I was determined not to cry. I almost made it. As I walked toward the gate and waved to my students, a horde of middle schoolers rushed out of the pool and into my hesitant embrace. There was no stopping this mob. I was soaked. But you know what? I had never felt more loved. It was all I needed; I turned away to walk towards my car, and the tears couldn’t be stopped.
It had been a hard first year. There had been lots of pain, tons of work and endless hours of grading papers, but the end result was so worth it. That one massive wet hug changed my life; it, along with the snot-filled chlorine that was making its way down my face, made me realize the importance of giving everything.
I’m now a sophomore English teacher at a "big scary public school," and I found myself having the same experience the first day of class. My hands were sweaty, and I was positive that the students could see my lips quiver as I read the syllabus for the first nine weeks. Even more so, I was positive that these huge kids would eat me if they had the opportunity.
Since then, I’ve come head to head with angry parents, dealt with cheating like a veteran teacher (no mercy) and screwed up royally in front of my class. (They really have no grace when it comes to an English teacher messing up on grammar.)
However, as we are beginning to close out the school year, I realize that once again, the kids have captured my heart. The paperwork is horrendous and at times I do believe I want to strangle a few, but every time I connect with a student I remember my first year. Perhaps in something fulfilling there will always been bouts of pain. But if that means I get a wet hug, I’m willing to stick it out.