“I had gone off to be a teacher, asking myself from time to time if I could teach English in such a way that people would stop killing each other.” -Mary Rose O’Reilley
As soon as I came across this quote in Peter H. Johnston’s book, Choice Words, I immediately related to it, which then caused me to feel alienated. You see, this book had been assigned as a school-wide PLC read. Aside from being one of the few that would complain about having to READ A BOOK (English teachers, anyone?), I also knew that the next day we would have to discuss this reading. I knew I would bring up this quote. I knew commotion would stir as everyone discussed what a preposterous notion this was.
OF COURSE we can’t stop murder. OF COURSE we can’t change the whole world. OF COURSE we can’t save them all.
Does the fact that we can’t change reality mean we shouldn’t still try? Does the possibility of not reaching one hundred percent success prevent you from setting a goal in the first place?
I read all of that before it seemed real–the “killing” part, at least. It was before everything changed.
I saw his name flash by on another student’s Facebook status closely followed by words like too soon, I love you, rest easy, etc. I quickly went over to check his page as I found myself whispering to myself, “No, no, no, no, no.” When I found his page, my worst fear was confirmed. My former student had been shot and killed the night before.
As I stared at his picture, my mind ventured back to almost everyday after school last year, my first year teaching, when this student was in my classroom.
The news story that soon followed confirmed that the altercation occurred to settle a debt of $70. He went to defend his friend, and as the other kids refused to fight, he walked away and was shot in the back.
Since that moment, just a few months ago, this quote crosses my mind almost daily. I find myself thinking, What if we talked more about violence in the classroom? If he had gone to college, would he have been in this same situation? If he was not afraid to ask questions, maybe he would have asked someone for the money or helped his friend earn it rather than attempting to settle the debt in another way. If this… if that…if only.
I know it is not healthy to think of all the things I should have done, but the truth is that I do. I believe teaching can change lives not because we know things, but because we know kids. Students want to be known, even if they don’t let on that it’s true.
I don’t only think of what I should have done, but I let it propel me into, What more can I do this time, today, this class period, for this student?
In a conversation with my 3TT friends, we were discussing “worksheet teaching.” In a very long and broad conversation, I told them another story that happened that week, and then I thought:
You have to get really close to have an impact, but getting close makes things really difficult sometimes. No wonder teachers sit at desks. There’s less skin in the game that way.
Honestly, that’s how it feels some days–like I’m scraping off tiny pieces of myself to try and fill what these kids need.
So I write to patch the scrapes, air out the wounds, and find the light breaking through the cracks.
Today I’m not writing to lament about teaching, to share war stories or anything of that nature, but just to heal.
Teachers need to write because it pieces us back together. We need to write, because others need to see our hurts to know they’re not alone.
Like Brene Brown says, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.” Despite the pushes for test scores, data, and measurable growth, we teach souls every single day. Those stories need to be told.
What do you do to heal from the inevitable trials of teaching souls? Do you think teachers can “stop the killing,” or should teachers refrain from distracting themselves with such lofty aspirations? Let’s start a conversation in the comments.
Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX. She usually takes on major life events all at once rather than bit by bit, such as starting graduate school, buying a house, going to Europe, and preparing for two new classes next year. If you enjoy watching her make a fool of herself by being unbearably vulnerable, you can catch more of that over at www.jessicajordana.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.