Well, I’m once again on the backside of a tremendous spring musical directed by the real-deal life-changing music and drama educators at Watauga High School, and once again thinking about why the arts experiences our students have in our schools matter So. Darn. Much.
This time, I got zinged by the traditional closing-night moment after the lights come up, when the seniors are recognized and a few of them say something about what the program has meant for them. Some of the speeches were hilarious. One affirmed, “When I came to Watauga High School as a freshman, I was sure of one thing: that I was going to be a fighter pilot in the Air Force.” And another: “When I was a freshman, I quit the musical halfway through to play volleyball. (Beat.) I don’t do that anymore.” And some were deeply moving, as students acknowledged the debt they owed the adults who invested in them and believed in them in moments when they could do neither for themselves.
Of course, the tributes from students to teachers – especially the one retiring at the end of this year – were the exact stuff that makes many of us who teach get up in the morning. Remembering hearing these things said, or hoping to hear them again soon, from the knuckleheads whose job it never is to say these things: whose job it is, after all, to be knuckleheads. But when they do – say them – they affirm and bless and sanctify this work we do, all at once. You wish you could bottle this stuff and put a dab behind each ear every Monday before you saddle up and wade back in to the reality of daily life with kids.
The truth though, I think, is that’s exactly the wrong way to think about it. Bottling and saving. We who teach can’t hoard our memories and affirmations, rationing them out to ourselves until the next shipment comes in next April. Because the shipment of student recognition and gratitude isn’t guaranteed. It’s not in the contract. It’s a windfall apple after the harvest is in, a sweet bonus to enjoy when the real work is done and submitted, bought (natch) at market price.
Instead, what we must do as teachers, and as those who teach teachers, is “lean into the kernel,” as Barbara McClintock phrased it. All the energy we need to do what we have dedicated our lives to do is right here, right now, not in a future moment of recognition or accomplishment. It’s here first period on Tuesday. It’s here after lunch. It comes in after school and asks for another letter of recommendation, more help preparing a monologue. It’s here in your email on Sunday night. The daily reality of the teaching life – like the corn that made McClintock’s career – is cheap and plentiful. It is enough to sustain our best work for a lifetime. If we really look at it. If we really see it and attend to it.
If we really honor the work, the music, the play, as these teachers tirelessly remind their students. We aren’t the point.
There is a way of knowing this that is not the martyrdom the culture seems to wish its best teachers to perform. A way of knowing this that actually fuels a year, a decade, a career of transforming thousands of lives AND thriving in the process. Policy won’t reach it, and couldn’t if it tried: sustaining is not what policy does. It’s an inside job, and it’s a community job, teaching like this. Leaning your life against the inexhaustible source that is possibility, having the good fortune of swimming in the river of people dedicated to becoming different, better people.
It’s so fragile, any interval in which you are trusted to do right by other people’s children. As grown-ups we know that a season, a year, is written in water on a wall in the sun. We have been around long enough to see the ironclad arithmetic of the American high school: right now is your time. Last year was not your time; next year you will be gone. Nothing can change either of those truths, just as nothing can take RIGHT NOW away from you. Older people who have seen a few cycles of the wheel know this. It makes us either cynical or more deeply attentive to our responsibilities right now, with you, the ones we’ve been trusted with this week, this semester, this show.
When the lights come back up, the performers who transported us are revealed to still be our children. But so green and so changing, caught in an instant of stillness that reveals the rush of their transformation. Just look at the alums one year out, or two, come back to see the show. Look how they’ve changed, deepened, broadened, if you need a reminder of how brief and perfect this moment is. (You probably don’t.)
When the lights come up, we see who they still are – but also, if we squint, who they were, and who they are on the way to becoming. Oh, it is so awesome.
This is my small tribute to the teachers touching my kids’ lives this weekend, and this year, all of them. And to those who touched mine, and to those students whose lives I’ve been part of, who are now wading in their own life-giving rivers and gazing into their own exhausting, sublime kernels. May we all be worthy of the trust, and tap into its deepest, truest wells to sustain both our own practices, and our own season upon the stage.