During the halfway mark of my teaching career, I felt discouraged and less than successful. I questioned what I was accomplishing, what I was contributing to the greater good of my students, why I was no longer enthusiastic about teaching Spanish and French. In tune with B.B. King’s plaintive lyrics atop the chords from his guitar, Lucille, “The Thrill [Was] Gone.”
We were living through the second term of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Well… I was living through it. Many of my students were trying to survive it. The trickle -down economy had crash landed upon families already teetering on the precipice between poverty and really desperate poverty. Poverty hadn’t erased kindness and compassion from my students. Desperate poverty obliterated it and left anger and meanness in its wake.
My colleagues and I hadn’t foreseen the amount of anger and violence that erupted within our classrooms and hallways as our students confronted each day. We weren’t the hungry, cold ones no longer willing to keep the lid on profanity, fights, fires, and the destruction of others’ property. We were imbued with the belief that education was supremely important, that a high school diploma and a college degree were steppingstones to a more comfortable life.
Music, art, athletics, and foreign language instruction were always the first to be guillotined when public education funds were cut. I always railed against that policy, but after a while I became quiet. I asked myself why the heck was I lobbying for second language acquisition when many of my students were less than proficient in English?
During a winter term’s Professional Development Day our staff was assigned to attend a series of workshops presented at the University of Pennsylvania. To this day I recall two meaningful moments that occurred. The first took place during a presentation regarding the hostility LGBTQ students encounter daily in the classroom. One of my colleagues raised her hand and stood to deliver her statement.
“We don’t have any gay or lesbian students in our school. And we certainly don’t have any LGBTQ staff members,” she declared.
Bless her heart, I thought as I gazed lovingly at the staff member seated next to me, my same-gender partner who is now my wife.
The second memory of that day is one that I called upon repeatedly for the remainder of my career.
Dr. Gloria Gay, a University of Pennsylvania professor, asked if we knew about the “theory of one.” She went on to explain that she understood those of us who felt overwhelmed by our students’ circumstances. She knew we went home each afternoon feeling defeated, or at least unsuccessful with our attempts to do our jobs well. She was aware we were tasked with achieving success with 165+ students daily, and she offered us a suggestion.
“Consider yourself a success if you reach one student each day. Just one of the one hundred sixty-five. In a week you will have affected five kids. In a month at least twenty,” said Dr. Gay.
This idea was doable. The very possibility of it restored my faith in my teacher-self. I hadn’t become a failure. I’d failed only to recognize reality, to grasp the fact that poverty had distorted the norms to which my students, my colleagues, and I had adhered. I needed to adjust my expectations and/or use a different set of tools to achieve my goals. I shrugged off the blanket of my discontent and donned a jacket of determination.
Why have I steered you down this particular memory lane, Dear Readers?
Because once again, normalcy is in flux. It seems that the political and legal norms with which we’ve existed have been forcibly separated from us. Anger and hatred have been elected to public office and threaten to take us over. Lies are told as if they were truths. In the midst of a pandemic, people choose political sides instead of disease prevention. Teens can buy assault weapons more easily than Sudafed or cigarettes. Women are on the brink of losing authority of their/our own bodies and health.
We have from now until November’s mid-term elections to touch one voter every few days, to talk with those who believe the 2020 election “was stolen,” that abortion should be illegal, that teen-agers have a right to buy AR-15 assault weapons, that the Covid-19 vaccines and boosters are not effective and therefore, shouldn’t be taken.
Engage said voter. Ask him/her/them “why?” questions. Accept their answers with an understanding nod, no matter how outlandish or illogical they seem to you. Ask if they’ve seen any photos of children’s bodies mangled by an assault rifle’s bullets. Have they seen the latest numbers of people who’ve tested positive for whatever strain of the Covid virus that’s currently making its rounds? Have they seen the hospitalized and morbidity stats of unvaccinated U.S. citizens? Are they familiar with how many women perished due to botched abortions before Roe v. Wade made the procedure legal? Do they know their preferred candidate’s policy vis-a-vis the issues you’ve raised?
Refuse to argue. Explain that you think deeply about the issues and the various candidates’ positions and your vote represents your concerns.
Keep doing this whenever the opportunity presents itself. And then…”Consider yourself a success if you reach one [voter per discussion.] Just one.”
©Renée Bess 2022
Renée Bess is a retired teacher who writes blogs, novels (five,) and anthologies of her short fiction-poetry-opinion pieces. She’s the co-story collector of the Goldie-Award winning, Our Happy Hours, LGBT Voices From the Gay Bars. Her most recent book, Between a Rock and a Soft Place, was published by Flashpoint Publications. http://www.reneebess.com