I drove a stretch of highway tonight chasing a big swath of pink sky, trying to get within a good photo’s distance of it before the night swallowed it whole. Soon, there won’t be much time for sunset-chasing. The school year is upon us, and I am proud to call myself a teacher. These words are for those also in the ranks of overworked folks who populate our schoolhouses from California to Virginia. Those of you in other lines of work, pay attention. Chances are you know a teacher. You should send your friends off into battle with a firm handshake and a reliable prayer.
Imagine me as your Patton, perched atop a box of copy paper that I guard with my life because it is rationed and there’s no way this one box is going to last me the entire fall semester. In my hand, I hold a staff made entirely of pencils and tape — supplies which you also may not have because I will need them. Behind me are rows and rows of coffee pots and granola bars, or what teachers call “sometimes lunch.” And in front of me are all of you — bright-eyed because you found time to sleep this summer; hopeful because you have a fresh start on a new frontline; anxious because you still don’t have lesson plans written; happy to have what will seem like enough paper clips but will turn out to really be not nearly enough paper clips.
The new school year is upon us. We have spent the last week in meetings and trainings. We have run for laptops that we forgot upstairs. We have motivated each other about the prospects of the coming year, what students we will have and how we might impact their lives. We have discussed what to do if a student flips a desk in our room and debated on whether documentation or a call to behavior aid comes first. We have once again dug deep into the well of determination and have cemented our resolve to not fall so far behind on paperwork this year. Those of us who’ve taught for a year or more know what trials lie ahead. Those entering the profession for their first year don’t know for sure, but they have surely cried in the bathroom during the break listening to the other teachers spin their tales of years gone by. Don’t worry. We’ve all cried in the bathroom, and some of us will do so again.
It wouldn’t be right for me to send you into this fight without a message rooted in reality. Your work will be tough. On many days the demand will seem to outstrip your abilities. You will run out of paper and the copier will jam. You will forget your lunch at home some days and tell yourself that diet Dr Pepper and Pop-Tarts is a fine meal. You will encounter students who don’t seem to hear you. You will have a moment in class when your frustration might cause you to stop, survey all the souls in front of you and, in this moment, you will find the grace to hear the echo of the teachers before you. Their voices will whisper, “Keep trying. Don’t give up.”
Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is a war. It’s not like any normal war. It is a war against poverty of the mind and spirit. It is a war against statistics, against hopelessness, against yourself. You will stumble. You will grow weary. You will doubt yourself, even if only for a moment. But it is here, it is in these dark times that a child will bring you a sticky note with “My favorite teacher” scribbled on it. A story they told you will spring into your mind. They will show up to class too early and they won’t know you’re tired. They will hug you or high-five you, and you will realize they count on you. You will remember what brought you here, why you come to work every day, and why you keep showing up even when it seems too much or too hard. You will continue to do your job because you are a teacher.
Your mission is no small task. I ask that you remember this advisory on those days before Christmas when you can’t figure out who’s selling the candy at school that’s getting everyone riled up. Remember this when you have five minutes before the kids return and the copier jams again even though you just unjammed it. Remember this when you’re alone in your room on your conference period, drowning in a sea of papers. You’re the one with the keys to the lighthouse. You’re the one with the face they look forward to seeing. You’re the beacon of hope in the middle of their sea of troubles. You’re the one who will help them along their journey, the one helping them to find their own set of keys to their own lighthouse. Without you, we all will fail. The world cannot go on without you.
Find your “why.” Type it up and post it outside your door. Staple it to your bulletin board. Tape a copy to the dashboard of your car. Get a good rosary. Buy an extra coffee pot. Say goodbye to your friends. Put your helmet on and arm yourself with hope. This is not a job. It is a profession. It is a responsibility. It is a duty. It is your privilege to serve. And if no one thanks you for it, take comfort in the solidarity that comes with being a part of this special platoon. Give your all, and when you feel like you have nothing left, dig deeper and lean in. You can do this. They’re counting on you, and so are all of us.