People often ask me when I decided to become a teacher. To be honest, it happened probably at the age of two.
In 1995, I convened my first class of students on the hardwood floor of our living room. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Minnie Mouse, a teddy bear, Bert, Barney the dinosaur, Santa Claus, and Nala from the Lion King were all in attendance that day. I fear I’ll never get a group as attentive and quiet as that first roster. Though my speech was only partially intelligible, they hung onto every word I said.
My parents blessed me with enough space to let my imagination grow. They watched as I led my stuffed animals in the songs I had learned in day care and repeated books I had memorized from countless nightly readings. Perhaps, as teachers themselves, they remembered the joy a new instructor feels in creating lessons for a captive audience. Maybe they knew that the patch of floor where the carpet met the wood would be my first classroom. Even if they didn’t envision blackboards and papers in my future, I was lucky enough that they respected my mind enough to let it wander.
My second classroom was in kindergarten. My beloved teacher gave up the wooden rocking chair that placed her high above her squirmy subjects on the carpet below to a little girl with wispy brown hair who had recently learned how to read. To this day, I still remember this accomplishment as something that happened overnight: one day I could not read, and then one morning I could. After this sea change, I was allowed to read My Secret Sunrise to a captive audience of fourteen five-year olds. I have no idea what the plot of the book is, but I remember the honor I felt when asked to share my knowledge.
My prized possession at the age of six was a whiteboard, a miniature version of the one that covered the front wall of our first-grade classroom. I would spend Saturday mornings lecturing to a group of imaginary students, copying the words we had learned in class, repeating activities, and even disciplining phantom troublemakers. My mom and I invented a classroom terror whom we would take turns playing. I loved the challenging of designing worksheets and reining in my mother. I even bought a pair of chunky black platforms to imitate my stylish first-grade teacher. She’s now my friend on Facebook. I bet she has no idea how many hours I spent imitating her every move.
My fourth grade teacher created a classroom like I had never experienced before. She loved every one of her students fiercely, and demanded excellence as well as a firm handshake every morning and afternoon. Whenever I corrected her in class (which was probably often), she’d crow, “I love it when I’m wrong!” It took me twelve years to comprehend her joy in making mistakes in front of a class. It proves that your students are paying attention, are not afraid of your authority, and have a wealth of knowledge that may be useful to you.
Whenever I go on teaching interviews now, I always talk about my tenth grade English teacher. She engaged with my teenage writing as if it were something precious. Her comments in purple pen swirled over the margins of the page, all the way to the backs of essays. She also cared about our thoughts and let us create a classroom of our own, where we could explore the consequences of the American Dream and think about what type of people we wanted to be. I’m grateful also that she let another boy and me think that we ruled the roost, even though our verbal jousting surely annoyed our classmates. Though she’d always interject with well-placed jokes and smart corrections, the floor was ours to exercise our sharp minds and sharper tongues.
Somehow, by the tender age of twenty, I abandoned my childhood dream and vehemently vowed to my aunt and uncle that there was no way I would ever become a teacher. My parents were teachers, I reasoned. I wanted to blaze my own trail. The thought of returning to high school made my skin crawl. I was set on being a feminist crusader of some sort, and I even had the summer internship to prove it.
And then, that same year, I was assigned to make a syllabus in one of my English classes. We had to imagine how we would teach a book of our choice. As I carefully selected a font and classroom policies for my imaginary class, and arranged my favorite readings in chronological order, I realized that the world would never be as complicated and stimulating and joyous as it was in the classroom. I felt the same glee as I had when I was two years old, except this time I would teach Barney, Nala, and Rudolph (which could easily be the names of actual Wesleyan students) about Latina feminism instead of storybooks.
That same spring, an opportunity fell into my lap that was too good to pass up. I was accepted into a fellowship at Wesleyan to prepare me for a PhD. I almost didn’t take it – my feminist crusader dreams and shiny summer internship (for which I had won a grant) were hard to give up. If my dad had not convinced me to give the program a second look, I certainly would not be on the path that I am today. It will take me six years to get my doctorate, and two years before I even enter grad school, but I’m on my way to realizing my dream of a classroom of my own.
I now work with mentors who have been as kind as my teachers of the past, even though I’m not officially on their roster. They have given me the space that I need to make mistakes, and filled my borrowed classrooms with actual students. Recently, one of my mentors sat in my middle school study hall so that I could finish a unit on Emily Dickinson with his tenth graders. Let me rephrase: he chose to go watch twelve year olds do their homework so that I could try to convince his teenagers to care about a dead poet. If he hadn’t lent me his space, I never would have realized how much I still have to learn.
Last December, I told an old high school friend that I was applying for high school teaching jobs, with the hopes of someday becoming a professor.
“I KNEW IT!” she crowed. “We’ve all known that this is what you were going to do! We were just waiting for you to figure it out!”
That’s the thing about old friends. Like good teachers, they can see your future self even before she reveals herself to you. But I know two things: I have been taught more by other people’s generosity than I can ever impart to my students, and I still have more to learn.