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Crossing the Atlantic

By Jessica Shyu — October 15, 2007 3 min read
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This week’s entry is by Jeremy Fried, a first-year Teach For America English teacher in the Rio Grande Valley. In this piece, Jeremy shares the grim reality and deeper responsibility of teaching.

“Sir, I should be teaching this class,” “Diana” yelled across the room. My class erupted in laughter.

For a second, I stood at the front of my class dumbfounded. I had no idea what to say. Worse, a little voice in that back of my head was saying, “She’s right.”

Diana is 15 and pregnant, and she had just managed to get everyone in the room to stop talking and listen. This was a task that I had been failing to accomplish for at least five minutes.

I spent four years at the University of Oklahoma, graduated summa cum laude with two degrees, and trained non-stop for months in order to become the instructional leader of my classroom. After two weeks, I held less sway over my class of sophomores than one of their peers telling them to “shut up.”

The voice in my head got a little louder.

“Maybe she’s right.”

The laughter died down and was replaced once again by Diana’s silence. The class was now quiet enough to hear the hum of the projector, which continued persistently to display the PowerPoint presentation on allusions that had kept me up until 1 a.m. the night before.

The voice in my head had no competition. “What are you doing here? Why are you teaching? You aren’t prepared for this.” I was starting not to like this voice. Deciding to teach had not been an easy decision. I’d been planning on going to graduate school or law school, but had decided that I needed to answer JFK’s eternal question first.

Now, having answered that question by saying “I can teach,” I was once again facing a room full of students who were more interested in planning their weekends than learning about TEKS Objective 11 (a). I can’t say that I was much different as a 10th grader.

Of course, this was neither the first nor the last moment when my façade of conviction that I’d made the correct decision would be shattered by an unwitting student. People tell me that teaching is like a roller coaster, with highs and lows. I cannot say that I agree. A roller coaster has a set course. There are ups and downs, but you know what is coming next and that the ride will be over soon and you can go back to your life.

For me, teaching is like crossing the Atlantic in a kayak. There are ups and downs, sure. Moments of sheer panic and pure exhilaration can come within seconds on any day of the week. However, there is no sure and safe end in sight and you never know whether the next wave will lift you up, or capsize you into the briny deep.

Diana had just sent me into another trough, this one particularly deep. There is something truly disconcerting about questioning your entire purpose for being at school in the middle of your introduction to new material. I was in desperate need of a sense of direction.

The projector, thankfully, was blissfully unaware that the man controlling it was in the middle of mental maelstrom. It was still confidently declaring to anyone with vision that an “illusion” and an “allusion” are not the same thing.

The steadfast belief of this inanimate object was vital because it was only by looking at the screen that I figured out what to say next. Diana may have helped get the silence, but now it was my job to fill it.

“Raise your hands if you know the difference between an illusion and an allusion,” I said. Only one hand went up. “Diana.”

“Sir, we don’t know,” she said. “We need you to teach us.”

Just like that, Diana lifted my vessel high enough for me to see my destination. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to remind you why you’re there.

As I hit the key to move into our new material, that little voice in my head had one more thing to say.

“She’s right.”

The opinions expressed in New Terrain are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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