The hardest part about the first year of teaching is that you have no instincts to draw upon to help you as you face a sea of faces; twelve year olds with zits the size of Mount Doom and still you are the most self-conscious one in the room. In that moment you are as far away from knowing what it means to teach a seventh grader as the distance you’ve tried to wedge between you and your seventh grade memories. In that moment you become about as qualified to teach seventh graders as, well, your seventh grade self.
Or maybe I’m just speaking for me.
I did, after all, go through an alternative certification program that gave me a teaching certificate after six weeks of teaching summer school while attending evening classes. (These classes were held in a run down Chicago Public School building where the water was not suitable for drinking and the classrooms were on the third floor of the un-airconditioned building. I got heat stroke. But seriously, that’s everyone’s entry into teaching, right?)
Let’s just say I got “on the job training”. A whole lot of it.
I’m a fast learner, so I realized I had taken a belly flop into the deep end of the pool when my plan for helping students enter the school building from the playground on the morning of my first day of teaching went something along the lines of, “We’re in room 210. See you up there.” All the rest of the teachers stood confidently facing their students, telling them the designated stopping points along the way to their classroom. Then in a spell of jujitsu magic, their students neatly filed into one line and silently entered the school.
I think my line may have been able to accomplish this sometime around May. Fine, I’m exaggerating. Sometime around June. If we ever did get that together. There’s a lot about that first year I’ve blocked from memory. But seriously, that’s everyone’s entry into teaching, right?
That wonderful year of my life (my first year of teaching) comes to mind frequently these days as I find myself once again at the beginning of something, something I face without the instincts of a veteran. By this, I mean mothering. I’m still in my first year of mothering, and while I don’t have to do tasks like teach my son how to line up in a straight line, I often find myself surprised by how a simple task can seem impossible. Like how to put a sleeping child into a crib without said child waking up and screaming. (The equivalent of Indiana Jones attempting to take the golden statue…no. sudden.movements.)
While I was living in Philadelphia during my sophomore year of college I became friends with a woman named Keia. She had a beautiful one year old daughter that was crawling around everywhere. I would follow Keia around pretty much all the time so that I could hold and play with her daughter. One day at church we were sitting in a luncheon and I was holding her daughter when the little girl started to cough. Before I registered what was happening, Keia had turned around in her chair, flung her hands forward in front of her daughter, and her daughter threw up in her mom’s cupped hands.
Gross, I know. But also kind of amazing. I developed a new awe for Keia that day. I think I shouted out something like, “You’re a MOM!” By which I meant, of course, “You have those mother instincts!” The ones that tell you when your child is puking. (Motherhood is glamorous, what can I say?)
Which leads me to this week. Our son has been sick for the past five days with what I assume is a cold and a fever. It is way harder than I ever thought it would be to watch my child wheeze. And maybe a little cute that he has a cough that makes him sound like a pack-a-day smoker. OK, not cute. Sad.
He’s been sleeping in bed with us the past five days which is bad news for everyone. But it was that or wake up fifteen times a night to go get him, help him fall asleep, and then put him back in his crib again. (Refer to earlier note about my skill in the area of putting a baby into a crib.) Turns out the latter is even worse news for everyone. It also turns out that my twenty seven inch long son is able to dominate sleeping space, leaving my husband and me mere inches of space on our king-sized bed.
Anyway, two mornings ago at about five in the morning my son wanted to nurse. Having mastered the art of sleep-nursing I fell asleep, waking up at six in the morning only to realize he was still nursing. I tried to cut him off, but he was having none of it. That is, until he started coughing. And then he promptly threw up all over the bed. Approximately an hour’s worth of milk, all over the sheets.
I kicked my husband awake and held our son out to him so I could get something to clean up the bed. In the four seconds it took me to get off the bed our son started coughing again and then threw up all over my husband.
Neither of us possessed Keia’s instincts. It was our first rodeo. We didn’t know. WE WEREN’T PREPARED!!
And that’s what it is to be a new teacher or a new parent or a new anything, I assume. It takes a long time to feel like you have any mastery over anything. And usually once you do, the game has changed and the rules are different and suddenly you don’t know who’s winning in volleyball anymore. (Seriously, rally scoring? What is that?)
But I know that this changes. Over time, the instincts start to kick in.
I know that I can now get most anyone to line up in single file lines with ease and maybe even a little finesse. I don’t know when that turning point happened, only that it has. After eight years of teaching I can walk into a school and instinctively know where the stopping points should be when directing thirty students from one area of a school to another. Eight years in it still isn’t always easy, but it is habit.
Some expert teaching advice I got during that first year was, “Focus on those things which you can control.” Which I now know is also expert life advice.
Most days the thing I can control is getting out of bed and doing the best I can all over again.
But I have a good end to this story. Yesterday morning I woke up and started nursing my son. About ten minutes in he started coughing. I held him upright and my husband and I both shot out our hands and he promptly vomited into them.
Instincts. They are amazing things. So is not having to wash the sheets two days in a row.
I told you I’m a fast learner.