to Lose Heart Cynthia
Check out Cynthia’s Book, How Writers Grow: A Guide for Middle School Teachers,
published by Heinemann.
In my first year of teaching, I was lucky to have veteran teacher
Larry O'Keefe as a friend and mentor. One afternoon, at the conclusion
of a day which had been particularly discouraging for me, he told
me one of the secrets of the profession: every abysmal day is soon
followed by one which is exhilarating and wonderful. Guaranteed.
And I have never known this to fail.
Larry reminded me that there would be kids with whom I'd make a
real connection, and others I'd feel I'd never been able to reach.
You do the best you can, he said, but you don't judge yourself only
by the failures, and you must ultimately put the bulk of your energy
into people who give energy back. He also suggested that I start
a shoebox file of all the
motivating little notes and cards that I was sure to accumulate
as time went on. I call this my "feel good" file, and
whenever I doubt myself, it provides tangible evidence to the contrary.
"And donıt be so hard on yourself," he advised, which
is a little like telling a mole not to burrow. "Sometimes you
need to leave it behind. Go for a walk. Visit a friend. Refresh."
This refreshment concept was new to me then, but I now understand
it is essential. After teaching for six years, I have learned the
rhythms of the academic year. I know how its music rises by May
to an emotional crescendo, then begins to dissolve, along with my
stamina, as I turn my face toward the warm breath and broad blank
days of summer. I recognize the incongruous tugging of remorse at
year's end, the odd sense of loss as I wave from the shore to the
kids I've grown to love.
When you put your heart into your work, as teachers do, there will
be occasional times of true hurt and disappointment. There is an
intense emotional component to the job, and when I use the expression
"losing heart" Iım talking about something other than
weariness or fatigue. But the only remedy is courage. We must ride
out the episodes of disillusionment and be stronger than our doubts.
The closest I came to losing heart was a year when an ugly and unfounded
complaint was filed against me just as the academic term concluded.
I was shocked, sickened, and deeply hurt. This particular year did
not "dissolve" -- it shattered. Then came a bleak summer
in which every day was foggy; all I could do was brood.
"Try to avoid being bitter," one colleague suggested.
"It doesn't hurt your enemies and
only consumes you." But there was a seed of cynicism in me
now that seemed the antithesis of teaching, which I had always seen
as the profession which most embodied hope and idealism.
A teacher-friend who had been through a similar experience recalled
that it was "sort of a combination of being accused of something
you didn't do and a horrible secret fear that youıd been wrong about
yourself and your work all along."
"My previously unwavering confidence and pride in my work,"
she wrote, "was crumpled amazingly. I still knew and believed
that I was good at teaching, and loved the kids, but I felt compromised."
Maybe that was the crux of it. My confidence was crumpled. How would
I manage to rally the self-assurance and motivation to face a new
class in the fall? I felt tainted and depressed.
On the first day back, I held my head high. My students were a rambunctious
lot, boy-dominated -- very bright, spirited kids who looked
at me with hopeful open faces, heartbreakingly ready for whatever
the new year might hold. I decided to
share a few stories, as I often do on the first day of school --so
I described some of the colorful childhood adventures Iıd had with
my beloved brother Eddie.
When Eddie was still a young man, he died of kidney disease, and
that is when I chose to become a teacher. My motivation was simple:
I wanted to do something good in Eddie's memory to show the world
how much he mattered. I told this story to my students because I
wanted them to see that there are ways to turn sadness into hope,
even if indirectly.
The bell rang and kids dispersed. And then I heard the sobbing.
A small boy sat in the back of the classroom, head down, weeping.
A sixth grade child had felt my old, worn sorrow and empathized.
A child had reminded me that we are all inextricably connected,
that love and loss are universal, that to buffer ourselves against
risk and pain is to lead a stilted life,
and to act upon the impulse to care is called compassion. I remembered
again why I teach.
And then, not because of this insight, but only because vacation
had ended and God loves irony, the sun returned. And when the sun
returned, I saw anew the beautiful place in which I live. I saw
that I had loyal friends whose trust in me had only grown stronger,
saw that I live in a true community where lives do touch, knew that
simply being clumsily present is
better than hiding, that feeling is better than numbness, that the
art of teaching and living is in the shaping and the using of the
feeling. I understood that those who act from the heart are forever
vulnerable, and I know I can not live any other way.
And I silently thanked Larry O'Keefe, whose guaranteed principle
had once again proven true. For every wretched day, there is one