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A Status Check

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I enjoyed my high school experience, but the prospect of attending my 20-year reunion generated little enthusiasm for me. If I hadn’t seen any of my classmates at all in the past two decades, I might have approached the reunion with greater anticipation, but it was the encounters I’d had in the intervening years that left me ambivalent.

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The problem is, I am a high school teacher. Somehow, meeting my classmates at various events over the years, I found it hard to make my career sound as interesting or important as everything they had done. Having launched careers in business, law, medicine, real estate, technology, academia, politics, arts, and entertainment, my classmates seem to have excelled in every way imaginable. Over the years, in my occasional encounters with the class hot shots, I’d been subjected to stories of commercial and corporate ascendancy that left me feeling professionally inadequate.

So I started off thinking I’d save myself the trouble and expense of traveling to the reunion. Nobody would really want to talk to me anyway; everyone went to school, so they think they know all about teaching. Why should I subject myself to more career-one-upsmanship when I’m just a high school teacher? Whatever we teachers tell ourselves and others about the importance of our profession, it can be hard to steel ourselves repeatedly against the perceived cultural biases against teachers.

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But then I had a thought: maybe I was too quick to think the worst about my classmates, too ready to take up the mantle of the unappreciated, undervalued, overworked high school teacher. I wondered if, despite all the outward trappings of success, maybe my classmates still harbored their own insecurities, and in those earlier encounters, had dismissed my work simply in their rush to find their own external validation, as they solidified their place and identity in adulthood.

In the end, my friend Scott convinced me to go to the reunion. Of course, the fact that Scott is a university professor and an award-winning author would make it easy for him to go. But Scott was never the kind of guy to trumpet his own success; for him, the reunion was more a matter of almost anthropological curiosity. I decided to adopt Scott’s curiosity, but mine was tainted; actually, in my mind, I prepared traps for my classmates to step into. If they asked about my job, I’d offer some brief reply, and then see if they could manage more than a platitude about education before launching into their own self-centered boasts. This time, it wasn’t personal, I told myself. I simply planned to measure where my profession—and education in general—stood in the esteem of my former classmates.

I arrived promptly for the event, and the first person I ran into was Mike, the former starting quarterback, Ivy-Leaguer, golden boy—the perfect test case. He probably never knew I existed in high school, but Mike had planned and coordinated the reunion, and with only three of us there so far, he couldn’t avoid me.

We began talking. I was watching his eyes, his body language, looking for any sign of perceived superiority, but when the conversation turned to schools and teaching, Mike actually seemed interested. I knew that, in order for my trap to work, I’d have to change the subject, start him talking about himself. I did it, and then … nothing. Yes, he told me that he was involved in a new high-tech company, but there was no boasting, no preening, or pride. He was just an ordinary guy, and we were having an entirely pleasant conversation.

I tried a few more times, with no greater success at entrapment. The former football players, the current power brokers, the class officers-turned attorneys, and the standouts in every profession—none of them spoke patronizingly or glibly about my work. What had happened? We were talking about our families, our children, our communities, and asking the type of genuine questions that go along with genuine interest in other people and their lives.

So I forgot for a while that I was there to catch people, and instead just focused on catching up. In some cases, I had warm visits with the very people who’d made me feel so overshadowed years before. But now, instead of talking about our careers, we were more often talking about our children and their education, and our shared concerns about the state of public education today. Now, it turned out my perspective as a teacher seemed more valuable, my work more relevant.

All my imagined or exaggerated wounds of the past seemed healed as I prepared to leave. On the way out, I ran into Andrew, whom I had stereotyped twenty years ago as a jock and a braggart; given a list of my classmates, I would have pegged Andrew as one of the people I least expected to end up speaking with that night. But then, there we were. After an awkward moment, we shook hands, began talking, and suddenly, high school seemed so long ago. Those teenagers were such different people. Now, I stood comfortably conversing with a man who shared some of my concerns and values. “We need to support teachers more,” Andrew told me. I thought it might end there, but he continued: “It’s a hard job, and so many teachers leave after just a few years.” Not a groundbreaking insight perhaps, but it was still encouraging to hear it from someone I hadn’t expected to share my concerns.

I’d entered my reunion with a hidden agenda, to see how little appreciation my former classmates had for teachers and education, but ultimately, I discovered that I’d developed greater appreciation for them. Ten years ago, I think we were all eager to show off how we’d emerged from college and hit the rocketing career trajectory, and relative to their achievements, my chosen career seemed a step backwards into high school. Twenty years after graduating, we’re hardly the people I thought we were. The reunion helped me let go of my professional insecurities and see my classmates for who they are rather than what they are.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here to be applied professionally. Maybe we teachers might move past our professional insecurity by interacting more with our community—socially, professionally, and politically—comfortable in the knowledge that our work and our perspectives do matter. We can put that knowledge to work for a greater good, asserting ourselves and acting upon the status we hold, rather than slowing ourselves down with worry, replaying the past in the vain hope we might fix it.

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