A man twenty years my senior, knowing I am to be married for the first time this May, repeated my age (44) aloud and grinned wide as he said, “Death is the next great event you’ll wait for. That’s all that’s left.” He said it like a fact. Like a rule. We coach together at the local university. Bundled up for October in Pennsylvania, I wanted to say “thank you.” His joke reminded me of how many possibilities awaited me. The late afternoon sun was low. The shadows, long and thin, trailed us. His words stuck with me through the chilled evening practice. Over us, the sky lowered itself into blue night. That moment, those words, redefined this school year for me.
I left practice thinking about the people in my life and we are all students, teachers, and mentors for each other—no matter our age or title. We are in this together—whether we realize it or not.
Our lives are in part defined by our education, and our education is a puzzle to be assembled. Like children with elbows on a table, we see the possibilities of our lives revealed as puzzle pieces are locked together. The puzzle can be as full and wide as we like—there are no rules for what our lives can be. There are no rules—only possibilities.
Education introduces us to the possibilities. Whether our fingers are tuned for the manipulation of music, or our muscles are disciplined for the strain of athletics, or our front lobes are wired for rhetoric, human beings need a safe place to arrange and rearrange the pieces—a place to see all of the possibilities.
Therefore, my role as a teacher is to help students discover the possibilities inside and outside our walls and guide them to begin to piece together not just who they are, but who they can become. Just writing those words, who they can become, is exciting because the words make me think of myself, who I can become, as much as I think of my students. And that is a good thing. Never finished, we are exploring our individual pieces and possibilities together.
In my case, thirteen year-olds need to feel comfortable in order to move forward. So often, I see and hear 8th grade students who are used to being told what to do. Whether it is from well-intention adults, the adolescents I teach are at the age when few listen to them--young people are dying for an adult in their life who listens to them.
Sadly, for years, I never listened to my students except for when I directed the school play. Sitting in a circle before rehearsal, we each took a turn to say something about our day. In most cases it lasted for a few minutes and then we moved on to warm-ups and rehearsal. Yet, sometimes they spoke in circle for two hours, with me just listening. Some days we never rehearsed the play. We just talked. And rehearsed life.
Directing the plays showed me that adolescents crave opportunities to be heard without judgment.
Year after year I received letters from cast members. Not about “the play” but about “circle.” I tried to apply the basic tenets of my role in “circle” to my classroom: listen, smile, and avoid judgment. And then I received a letter from a young girl named Becky. For the first time a letter wasn’t about “circle” but about something bigger:
…Other teachers walked by in the hallway. But he would smile and say "Hi Becky," or simply smile. Either way, I actually remembered it and thought about it when I got home from school that day. It would brighten up my day. If he didn't realize it, I always wanted to tell him that when I felt lost and confused, I always knew that I could talk to him about it. I never did talk to him about a personal problem, but just knowing that if I did tell him he would listen. It helped me figure things out and find my way.
How we handle kids--how we speak to them, about them, with them--often has as much to do with their confidence moving forward than any other factor. I actualize this when I remind myself to see myself as a mentor or when I am reminded by someone else that my possibilities are still out there.
Writing alongside of my students, I consciously work at having them regard me as a mentor of writing, and not as a judge. What they write, I write. And I give them choice. We write freely together in writer’s notebooks and on the classroom blog. We freely choose the books we want to read, in addition what we are supposed to read—and we share the connections we make in our self-selected reading.
We work to see our writing as a piece of art—I literally have a frame hanging in my classroom. Inside of this frame I will place student writing in all of its forms. If I can raise how they see themselves in their own eyes then I am on my way to mentoring kids forward, towards the possibilities.
It is so important and relevant that they see me as a writer and a reader. So I have to walk the walk. Last spring we started to submit our writing to the local paper, The Unionville Times. Because of the quality of our submissions, editor Mike McGann notified me that he was creating a new section called “Local Voices.” Now, anyone in the community has a forum to have their writing read, including our students.
It was just last spring when I thought of another possibility—I formed a writing group for adults called “Parents and Grandparents as Writers.” For nine consecutive Tuesdays in the Spring I offered a free writing workshop to any parent or grandparent in our school district community. Welcoming six brave souls, we made it through all nine workshops—of course, we were competing with the Chester County Night School’s bridge club! Right in the next room in the library, over fifty senior citizens met to play bridge. How I wish I could infiltrate that group for some senior writers for this coming year…because the possibilities are endless for all of us. And our teachers, our mentors, and our students are all around us. We are one and the same. The beauty is that we never stop learning, especially when we come to understand in our time that all of our puzzles connect with one another.