Teaching Profession Opinion

Students, Hold Your Applause Until the End

By Marilyn Rhames — October 19, 2011 3 min read
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My principal abruptly had her baby this weekend leaving the staff a bit in shock. One of my students just confided to me that he is gay. I couldn’t sleep for two days worrying about a different student who ran away from home on the coldest, wettest night of the season. (Now found, he survived by panhandling, riding the bus, and sleeping in a stranger’s car). My husband and I took turns taking a day off work to nurse my kindergartener’s nasty cold. During which time the gas company detected a gas leak in my basement so alarming that the inspector refused to ring my doorbell. And I stared at my computer in disbelief when my old college boyfriend from the U.K. found me on Twitter and emailed me that he is now State-side and a huge fan of my blog. I could mention that my laundry is overflowing and there’s a huge stack of ungraded papers in my bag, but I won’t.

It’s just a typical week in the life of wife-mother-teacher-writer-friend. No biggie. I’m used to it. Somewhere deep, deep down inside, I must really like it. The busyness keeps me young, I tell myself, until I burn out.

This may sound a bit deranged, but I am frequently compelled to imagine my colleagues 20 to 30 years older. Teachers do it to students all the time, predicting what kind of adult they will become if they stay on their current path. But when I apply the same prophetic imagery to my peers—to myself—the prospect of what might become of us can be downright frightening. For example, one day I imagined one young, fashionable and energetic teacher I know at the age 50. Sadly, she had bags and wrinkles but that wasn’t the worse of it. She was disillusioned, bitterly complaining about what’s wrong with education. I hope I am wrong. But I see the warning signs now: She struggles to be the amazing teacher that she is while also trying to cling to the vibrant social life she once had. Her joy of teaching is waning. She is single with no children—and still strapped for quality “me” time.

I get it all the time: “Marilyn, how do you do it? You’re a wife, a mother, a teacher, a blogger ... I don’t even have goldfish at home and I’m struggling to teach.” I tell them that I have an awesomely supportive husband, and that I’m up a 4:30 a.m. almost every day. I used to exercise in the mornings, but the time gradually morphed into an extended prep period for lesson planning, writing, or grading papers.

But here’s the curious thing: I love what I do! In fact, most of the teachers I know love being educators (though not necessarily their schools). After 25 years of taping her show, Oprah said she kept a positive outlook because her studio audience would stand and applaud her every day. While I wish my students would stand up and clap when I enter the classroom, the fact that I’ll forever be their beloved teacher IS like an ovation.

Right now I am applauding my late kindergarten teacher Mrs. McDonald for teaching me how to do the Hokey Pokey. I applaud Mrs. Kundys, my 5th grade teacher, who made me write a futuristic paper about what my life would be like in the year 2000; I actually thought about it on my wedding day that year. Oh, and Ms. Friedman! She was my 7th grade teacher who encouraged me to enter the Illinois Young Author’s Contest. I won, and my mom and I got to get all dressed up for the banquet at the ritzy Westin Hotel in downtown Chicago to honor the awardees. Humm ... I wonder if that had anything to do with my successful writing career...

Being a teacher is hard. It demands a lot of sacrifice, if one decides to do it right. I liken it to peacetime military service. Some days I doubt I’ll stick around long enough to collect my pension. But in the silence, in my 4:30 a.m. silence, I can hear the applause. Its a faint, single clap, the thought of one small success. Then the ovation builds—resounding—and it never stops.

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