September--the Cruelest Month
September, for teachers, is the cruelest month. With each "new'' academic year (beginning, ironically, in the season of ripeness and decline) is reborn the hope that young people known not to gold or apple will change colors, bear fruit. A romance of transformation--our faith that each session brings change in students--both sustains and frustrates our teaching.
Like our pupils, we forget every summer what we have learned. We let ourselves believe--we must believe--that this year beetles can become butterflies. Matthew will no longer be Matthew. Lauren will sprout curiosity; the striving we grafted onto Alan last winter will thrive; Jennifer will shed her distractability.
We hope to harvest the grains we think we have sown instead of those that habit, home, and heredity have planted. But fall's fresh start fades to spring's familiar disappointment. Karen still can't, and Barry still won't. When children remain who they are, we blame ourselves for having failed to change what was unchangeable. (And when students who have prospered at every level continue to flourish, we can congratulate ourselves only for having cultivated what it was beyond our power to blight. No more often do curious, motivated young people lose interest in learning through the efforts of teachers than bored students gain it.)
Schools' "fresh start'' is the artifice of calendar and circumstance. What is not new is nature. Rooted traits of character and intellect do not know term or vacation; through neither watering nor weeding can they be altered or eradicated.
Why, then, do we persist in seeing children's personalities as periodic rather than continuous, and hearten ourselves for each new session with the resolution that this year we will influence our students in ways we have not been able to in the past? Partly because apparent change is so palpable a part of school life: Many young people do mature intellectually--not to mention physically--during a given school term. Teenagers change voices and try on identities like T-shirts. Decked out in disaffection today, Ben may put on diligence tomorrow.
Even in their high-school years, most young people are still in the process of becoming who they are; indeed, etymology as well as metaphor connects pupil and pupa. Usually, however, we recognize in the forms that finally emerge from their cocoons faces we only thought we did not know. With an academic branch to grasp at last, the sometimes disruptive behavior in Jill that we had labeled misdirected energy we now see to have been motivation seeking a hold from which to climb.
But more compelling evidence is the experience--perhaps twice a year, or every other year, or once in a career--of tending a real metamorphosis. The worm we thought we were nursing grows wings. Ellen, hitherto bored by books, is eager to read this summer. I-can't-do-math David discovers that he can solve quadratic equations and wants to show his classmates how easy they are. We more than half perceive rather than create these changes. Still, intuition tells us that we have shared in a transformation, even if our mission was only delivery. Sometimes less can be more than enough.
And the plain reality that there are good teachers and bad teachers adds credence to our belief. Teachers do not know, any more than do the young people themselves or their parents, which pods will blossom or which centipedes will prove after all to have been caterpillars. But all can distinguish classrooms that stimulate change from those that stymie it. Miracles make us proud. The satisfaction of trimming and training, the sense of having helped shape what we could not make--such testimony supports September's romance of transformation, the faith we could so easily be tempted to disavow each spring.
For May too often means cannot; not many crape myrtles become camellias. But in the source of our frustration lies our sustenance. The chance to participate, however rarely, in the mystery of metamorphosis--the flowering of a green and reaching human being--is the beautiful, enduring reward of teaching.
Lewis Cobbs is chairman of the English department at Isidore Newman
School in New Orleans.