Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Road Leads Back to You

Georgia is my home.  My state.

Its peach-scented Augusts run in my very blood.

I have the great privilege of teaching this state's history to schoolchildren, and I love it.  Sometimes, when I get in a random kid from California - from South Carolina - from El Salvador - from Delaware - I get the privilege of explaining why Georgia matters.

Her history is often broken and devastating - fragmented and peppered with stories of heart-wrenching loss.  Georgia has her nightmares written in history books - stories of Leo Frank, stories of Native American removal, stories of slavery and blatant and terrible racism.  Stories of Tom Watson, Eugene Talmadge, and the 1906 Race Riots.  Our story is definitely far from perfect.

And yet, there is an alluring draw to the redemption in our state.  For a state full of racism, we are also the home to one of the world's greatest civil rights activists -  Martin Luther King.  For every story about our backwards refusal to grow, there is a Maynard Jackson, who made our airport world-class.  For every racist governor, I find a Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter willing to buck the status quo. 

See, what I explain to my students who come from other places is this:  when you come here, you are part of Georgia's story.  Her spirit.  Her resilience to overcome.

Atlanta recently went through a snowstorm that had epic ramifications.  While a few wily Northerners scoffed at Atlanta's two inches of snow, our roads turned into a sheet of ice.  Suddenly, a city full of urban sprawl (with only a few major ways in and out) became gridlocked in hours.

While I could use this platform to point fingers, throw blame, and give my ideas to make things better, I'd like to talk about what really matters.  People in Atlanta took each other in, helped each other, and even used facebook and social media to keep each other's spirits alive.  The stories coming out of the storm are full of hope and life.  Stores took in patrons to spend the night, good Samaritans fed stranded motorists, people brought snacks to bus-ridden school children, teachers turned a nightmare into the best lock-in ever - these are just a few examples of how Atlanta persevered.

When Atlanta's transportation heart froze, her people kept her love beating - and moved into action.

Atlanta's motto - Resurgens - means "from the ashes."  This was a city annihilated by Sherman.  This was a city that could have evaporated after a war nearly tore the nation apart.  But it survived, then thrived.  It endured a terrible racist time period, but then emerged as a hallmark city - a "city too busy to hate."

Atlanta, Georgia's great industrial center and life-giver, will learn from this and get better.  You see, I will forever ignore the remarks of those who scoff at her weakness, because I know her story.

There are few cities stronger than Atlanta, and she has overcome too much to let ice (and even traffic) overwhelm her.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Rejected Age. The Redemption Age.

If you know me or anything about me, you know that I teach 8th graders for a living.

One of the things you may not know about my job is how many negative things I hear about my job from other people.

When I go out into the public world and I'm asked about my job, I usually hear the following myriad of responses:

"Oh my goodness, don't you want to teach high school?"

"Ugh.  I'm sorry. How do you do that?"

"Good for you.  You couldn't pay me enough money to do that!"

"Oh, wow - your life must be so stressful!"

"Do you hate it?  I bet you hate it."

These come from everywhere - people from all stations of life.

I used to just be polite and give a nonchalant answer, but I've decided that passivity is insipid.  I've decided to counter these generalizations and assumptions with logic.

So, the last time I was faced with the comment, I floored the salesperson by saying, 'Actually, I love what I do. I love my kids.  8th graders are amazing."

And they are.

I actually read an article a few weeks ago where the author said he couldn't think of anything worse than being a middle school teacher - that it would have to be the worst job on the planet.

I feel sorry for that writer and his ignorance.

Middle school is a terrible time in life for so many kids - and I was once one of those kids, so I speak from experience.  Things change, bodies grow.  Life is convoluted mess of friendships, emotions, and new academic pressure.  Insecurities run rampant.  Growing up and facing reality becomes inevitable.

It is also one of the most crossroads-driven times of life - many kids decide in 8th grade if they really want to take school seriously for the rest of their academic career.  It's the time when many of them begin to sink or swim. 

Middle school is a nexus of life - between full-fledged young adulthood and just being a kid.  I find it heartbreaking that some people look upon what I do - and these kids - with pity and with disdain.  These kids, quite frankly, need us.

I teach a critical age.  Is it a tough job?  You betcha.  Are there hard days?  Yes.  But I wish I had an 8th grade teacher that loved 8th grade me.  I wish I had an 8th grade teacher that invested in 8th grade me.  Don't you wish for the same?  Don't you wish that there would have been something in your adolencent life that would have made it easier?  That gave you hope?

I want that for my students.

Middle school kids are not easy, but they are so full of life, hope, and laughter.  They've still got just enough kid in them to embrace a little silliness, and yet, they're starting to explore social norms.  But here's what I've found:  if you can get them to laugh, you've won them over.  If you can get them interested, you can light them up.  If you talk to them instead of yelling at them, you can get some honest, breathtaking truth.

So don't feel sorry for me.  My job isn't easy. And no, it isn't for everyone.

But  in the past few years I've experienced seeing some of my former 8th graders grow into riveting, responsible adults.   I look back at these lives that defy poverty and comprehension -- and I thank God for being amazing.

Those, my friends, are the rewards of my job  - a job that is anything but terrible.