I have recently come across a Jamaican poet, Lorna Goodison, whose work is tremendous. It’s so good, I borrowed the title of this post from one of her pieces. When I arrived last semester I wrote that Fr. Anthony, a native-born Jamaican member of the Mission Society, co-opted me for his English and Literature class as soon as he learned of my history with the arts. The class covers drama, poetry, and prose and I do my part where I can. Hence my introduction to the work of the fore mentioned Ms. Goodison. This week we examined the poem, Colonial Girls School, by Olive Senior; a caustic piece about the lingering effects of subverting a people’s culture through forced adoption of someone else’s. Being the lone Caucasian in the room helped make it as much a learning experience for me as it was the students.
And that is only part of my day. The rest is divided among other grades. The school is structured similar to a traditional Catholic school in the US. It serves the equivalent of third grade through high school, though due to British colonialism, grades are called “forms” and go has high as “fifth form.” Beyond that, a student can enroll in a two-year preparatory program for the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC), equivalent to the SAT or ACT. However, instead of one all-day exam, students are tested on individual subjects like math, science, and literature. From there it is on to university.
So, in addition to literature with 16 and 17-year olds, I spend part of each day helping another volunteer (seen below) in the lower forms. He is a trained professional who specializes in teaching children how to read. I simply run the exercises he gives me. I repeatedly time and test kids between the ages of seven and ten as they identify specific letters, help them learn to pronounce words such as “an,” “too,” and “two,” and work on basic stories and books composed of rudimentary sentences.
My afternoons usually include time assisting the Personal Development classes. These are taught throughout the school are tailored to each form. First form covers topics like telling the truth vs. lying, being nice to other people, etc. The middle forms deal with respecting others, accountability, and some of the building blocks of emotional awareness. The upper levels continue those themes, but accountability and consequences takes on a different tone when talking about teen pregnancy and future careers.
And everyone once in a while I substitute for a math or science class, which you might think is the first place I would be slotted given my background in engineering and propensity for numbers. I am quite at home showing people how to solve an equation. I recently proctored an exam because the math teacher. Br. Brad Smith, a native of Kentucky with a significant accent and the most consistent free throw shooting I have ever seen, had a meeting elsewhere. He asked me to remind the students to take their time, which I did. “Ya got penty time,” I told them as the test began. “90 minutes. You’re going to be fine.)”
About half way through, Br. Brad came back and popped his head in the room to see how things were going. He quietly reminded the class, “Remember, you have an hour and half total so take your time with it,” he advised.
“An hour and a half!?” one student exclaimed. “Breddah Brad," she continued, pointing at me, "Him say we only have 90 minutes!”
Brad and I have been dining out on that one for days.
Unsurprising, I am exhausted at the end of each day. And I don’t even teach a class every period. The free moments between classes often find me helping students with class assignments, though sometimes I get a break and grab a snack in the house. It is in those moments that I have had a few revelations about teaching.
To begin, it is a special vocation. I believe you have to love this job in order to do it well. It is one of the hardest jobs there is, and we are failing at valuing our educators. Further, we are not doing nearly enough to equip them to teach in the modern world. We are clinging to 19th and 20th-century ideas to education – how we prepare our teachers, how we keep them current, and how and what we teach. We are sending our kids into the world with knowledge learned by rote but incapable of thinking critically or communicating effectively with their fellow human beings, a problem exacerbated by digital technology.
In addition, I do not think this is the vocation for me. I simply do not have the fire in the belly that I see in other educators. Recall that I took an intensive aptitude test prior to leaving Chicago. Its list of potential careers included teaching, but I suspect it referred to the aspect of conveying information in general, not a forma classroom setting. And I am fine with that. I am very much enjoying this experience. I am doing my bit to help. And sometimes finding a vocation about which you are passionate means exploring ones that simply do not resonate with you.
But my biggest learning of all has to do with my mom. She has been a teacher for as long as I can remember, and I wonder exactly how she has done it. Hence the connection with the title of this post. (I realize I buried the lead a bit on this one. Forgive me.) As I watched my mom throughout her career, I saw the work that everyone saw: time in the classroom, parent-teacher conferences, school assemblies, and school plays. But that was just the proverbial iceberg above the water. I also saw everything beneath the surface: lesson planning, report card preparation, grading papers and tests, cutting out every bit of a 50-piece bulletin board, and attending various certification classes. I also watched her achieve a master’s degree piecemeal while holding down her other job as mother to three children. This was after having been a Navy wife for more than a decade, a job that, at times, left her at home with three kids while my dad was on 6-month deployments in the Pacific. As if that were not enough, she has gracefully dealt with deteriorating hearing. Thanks to modern medicine and technology, cochlear implants are proving absolutely miraculous and I thank God for them.
All of this to say, my mom is one of the strongest people I know. I get plenty of traits from my dad. It is easy to understand why adults often called me Paul by mistake. I look and sound like him. We have the same sense of humor, for better or worse. And he’s plenty strong – physically and emotionally – on his own. But my mom is a singular example of strength without parallel. Were I to inherit a quarter of her strength, or maybe a tenth – let alone half – it would be more than enough for me to handle anything.
Maybe even teaching.