Monday, June 18, 2012

Someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.

A few weeks ago, I was engaged in a text message conversation with my friend Scott. He told me that his mother had just started reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Of course this incited a torrent of pithy remarks about the sheer ridiculousness of that book's popularity, which seems to be a rather frequent occurrence these days. Amused, he responded, "I really think this is going to be your Catcher in the Rye."

As someone who is usually pretty adept at understanding allusions, I was annoyed when this reference completely escaped me. Unfortunately, I had to ask what he meant. He said something along the lines of "After all three (Fifty Shades books), you're killing Lennon." That was enough for me to Google "John Lennon Catcher in the Rye," which yielded about a million results. Cheating, I clicked on the Wikipedia articled on The Catcher in the Rye, which told me that after Mark David Chapman shot Lennon, he stayed at the scene of the crime reading Salinger's novel. Inside the cover of the book, he had written:

Dear Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement.

As if that wasn't intriguing enough, the Wikipedia article also mentioned that the novel has also been associated with two other crimes: Robert John Bardo had a copy on him when he shot Rebecca Schaeffer, and after John Hinckley Jr. made his attempt on Ronald Reagan's life, a copy of the novel was found in his hotel room. 

Salinger's novel has been challenged many times by school boards and parents because of its sexual references and inappropriate language. It was this fact that initially prompted me to read the novel in middle school. That and the fact that I was consistently working my way through every book in the public library. Even though I was enthusiastic about reading a banned book, all I can remember about my first sojourn into Holden Caulfield's world is that I didn't like it. I didn't like the sarcasm, or the way it was written. Of all of the books that I have read and disliked, only two stand out in my memory. One was The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and the other was Catcher in the Rye.

Well, after I found out about the book's ties to the aforementioned crimes, I obviously needed to read (or re-read, really) this novel to see if it made me insane as well. I ran the idea by another friend, Liz, and she told me that the novel was one of her favorites. Whether or not this makes her insane is up to interpretation, but she assured me that Holden Caulfield's humor is similar to hers. Since I enjoy her humor, I went to Barnes and Noble and picked up a copy.

Hoping that I was too young the first time I read the novel, I sat in Barnes and Noble's adjoining Starbucks and cracked the spine. It's a bad habit, but I do it anyway. Sipping my low calorie skinny vanilla latte (iced, of course), I once again stepped into the 1950's life of Holden Caulfield.

Holden initially comes across as a pretty typical seventeen year old boy, which only served to cement my long-held belief that people don't really change over time. He has gotten kicked out of yet another prestigious boarding school, which the reader soon realizes is absurd. It's absurd because Holden is smart, exceedingly so. It is apparent in every word of the novel. He is also potentially manic-depressive, irrational and impulsive, but some of the most intelligent people inevitably are.

The book itself is almost like a stream of consciousness: just several days in Holden's mind. It is at once inspirational and depressing. I found my own emotions following the roller coaster ride of Holden's, and highlighting little tidbits of wisdom that were spewed forth almost casually by Holden and the myriad foil characters that he interacts with.

Honestly, the most frustrating thing about the book is its realism. Holden Caulfield is the least contrived, most alive character that I have ever met. I say met because when you read this novel, that is what you do; you meet Holden Caulfield, and you spend a couple of days with him. You start to wonder whether he'll ever call Jane Gallagher, because Salinger never tells you. Plus, the whole time you're reading, Holden keeps wondering where the ducks from the Central Park pond go in the winter. Then suddenly, the book is over and you never find out. That's terrible!

After the second go-around with this book, I have revised my initial opinion. Love it or hate it, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye is worth reading. I suggest that you take the time to meet Holden Caulfield. After all, somewhere inside all of us is a seventeen year old rebel.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Every man should follow the bent of his nature in art and letters, always provided that he does not offend against the rules of morality and good taste.

I'm not a confrontational person. As a result, I have a habit of writing letters to express my feelings. On many occasions, I never send those letters. Instead, I use them as a cathartic release. Since I am still dealing with the feeling that my life is hovering on the precipice of fate, I decided to write a letter today. This letter is to the next person who occupies my desk at school. For some reason I am terrified that next year my classroom won't be the happy, comforting place that it was this year. I haven't decided yet if I will leave this in my desk, but I think that posting it will go a long way toward helping me close this chapter of my life.

To the next occupant of this desk:

You may be new here, or you may have been here for years. Nothing is certain, which is surprisingly the one thing that I am certain of. As you’re reading this, I could be anywhere; I certainly cast my net wide enough. My name is Brooke, and although you and I may never meet, it’s almost as if we know each other. After all, I was the last person to sit in the chair that you are sitting in now. I was the last person to teach a class in what is now your room, and I was the last person to experience the “first day of school” excitement from your vantage point.

If you are new here, be prepared to feel the whole range of emotions this year. I bet that when you became a teacher, you never imagined that you would find yourself in an old building with no air conditioning, teaching the students that didn't seem to fit in anywhere else. I know that when I was in college, my dreams of my first classroom didn't include peeling paint, laptop carts that only work some of the time, and students that would just as soon cuss you out as sit down and listen.

Don’t be afraid, although perhaps a little fear is good for you. My time in this room was one that I will always remember. Before you get started though, I want you to take a minute and forget everything you’ve heard from the other teachers. I’m sure they’ve told you all of the juicy gossip and horror stories. Walk down the hall and talk for a minute with Robyn Barberry; she’s got her head on straight and she’ll give you the truth. I’m not going to sugarcoat it; this year will be anything but sunshine and roses. It will be hard, frustrating, and at times you’re going to feel like you’d rather be anywhere else. Remember this though, every time a student cusses at you, or walks out, they’re just asking you to notice them. Pay attention to them from the beginning, and you’ll have far fewer issues.

You became an educator for a reason, and you probably ended up here for a reason too. Whether you are a teacher, or a paraeducator, or anything else, you are going to play a huge role in the lives of the students at CEO this year. Regardless of your role, you will teach them, whether you mean to or not. These
kids are sponges, and for the most part, they’re searching for something to give validity to their lives, just like we all are. Do your best to help them find that. Do it because they are going to teach you something every day. Do it because I promise that if you let it, your time at this school will inspire you. Most of all, give this a chance, and I hope that some of the happiness and fun and learning that has happened in this room will lend you support.

Take care of these kids and yourself, and have a wonderful year.

Brooke Travers

Saturday, June 9, 2012

And when you finally fly away, I'll be hoping that I served you well...For all the wisdom of a lifetime, no one can ever tell...And whatever road you choose, I'm right behind you win or lose, forever young

The end of the school year is at once exciting, uplifting and overwhelmingly sad. Maybe one day, when I've been teaching for ten or twenty or thirty years, I'll forget to be sad that another group of students has passed through my classroom doors for the last time. I hope that never happens, because despite the tight sensation in my heart and the tears that prick the backs of my eyes, I am grateful to know that I connected with my students, and that I will miss them. It is a teacher's greatest accomplishment, I believe, to know that there are also some kids that will miss their time sitting in those now empty desks.

This year my first group of seniors graduated. Some of them were my students last year, some this year, but as a whole, they are a group that I will never forget. My inaugural class, in a way. Since I have been at Alternative Ed, I have met a multitude of different personalities: angry, depressed, manically happy. Regardless of their insecurities, attitudes and the days that I thought that I would never get through to them, I have loved them each individually.

These days there is a stigma attached to a teacher's love for his or her students. In my mind, this fact is one of the greatest downfalls of today's culture. It is a little pinprick on my conscience every day, this knowledge that because I am a young, female high school teacher, I will be scrutinized and ridiculed for caring "too much" about my students. It's unfortunate that the mistakes and bad judgment of a few will forever color student-teacher relationships.

Regardless, I have never hesitated to express my dedication to the welfare of my students. Ask anyone who talks to me even once a week and they'll be able to tell you that although I have been frustrated, angry and at times a little hysterical regarding my job, at the end of the day I wouldn't trade my kids for anything. There were several moments in the past year when students asked me "You hate us, don't you?" My response was always the same, "Of course not, I lecture you because I love you guys." Sometimes a child needs that reassurance, that unconditional devotion that they are sometimes missing at home. Even in my most desperate, self pitying moments, that answer was always true.

My students are the underdogs in every sense of the word. They are the ones cast out by their "normal, rule-following" peers and tossed in with the other kids "like them" on the island of misfit toys that is Alternative Ed. This year I had the opportunity to witness how teachers cope with these students, and I was saddened to see that in some cases, not only was the love not evident, it wasn't there at all. It is a tragedy that in a place where students, especially the most frustrating and unruly, need to see that love, it wasn't freely given. Love is the most simple gift to give, after all.

I won't pretend that loving my students is easy, in fact it can be the most draining, profanity-worthy process. Even so, I would do it again, day after day after day. Actually, I intend to do so for the rest of my career. Just little acts of caring, a hand on the shoulder, the gift of a sketchbook, a note of encouragement, have the potential to turn things around for kids. In a larger sense, this is true of all people, not just those in school. These  little things are reminders that every moment counts because every moment is an opportunity for someone to chart a different course. 

That course led my inaugural seniors across the stage yesterday, and I have never been more proud of any group of people in my (rather short) life. As I watched them process in, in their white and red caps and gowns, I felt more like a parent than a teacher, because in many ways, some of those kids were my babies. We laughed together, wrangled a wayward dog together (long story) and on more than one occasion, I let them cry on my shoulder. I helped to show them what it means to be good people, and although sometimes they may forget it, they have proven themselves to be good-hearted, capable young adults.

One of my students was the valedictorian, which was the culmination of a year of hard work, perseverance and near perfect attendance. Considering this was a kid who came to us believing that he would be kicked out of school completely before he was eighteen, his accomplishments really can't be understated. On Back-to-School night at the beginning of the year, he told me that he would have straight A's and speak at graduation, and he did that. I know that he exceeded even his own expectations, and he will be a fine asset to the Navy's Nuclear Engineering program.

Another of my boys pretended that he didn't care about graduation, but when he was finished with the ceremony, there were tears in his eyes. I know, and I believe that he does too, that he is capable of anything he sets his mind to. I said goodbye to a girl that is bright, kind and funny, and I hope that she realizes all of her dreams. I hope too that she remembers to never let the opinions of others tarnish her opinion of herself. Finally, I was able to congratulate one of the nicest, quietest, most respectful students that I have ever had the pleasure of teaching. He was in night school, and his quiet dedication and positive attitude are inspiring. I hope that he never loses those qualities.

People ask me why I teach, and especially why I have chosen to spend time at Alternative Ed when I could have made more money simply substituting. My answer varies, depending on when they ask, but in my heart it's always the same: I teach because my students teach me. I teach because I love to give a part of myself to the education of others, and I teach because I find inspiration in every day spent in the company of my kids. The end of the year is exciting, uplifting and overwhelmingly sad, but I wouldn't trade the moments that led up to it for anything.

Friday, June 1, 2012

I am done with this graceless heart, so tonight I'm gonna cut it out and then restart

My next post was supposed to be reserved for a final review of the Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James. Unfortunately, getting through the third installment is much like wading through sex-filled quicksand, so that particular post is going to have to wait. Don't hold your breath, I'm pretty sure this last review isn't going to be much more kind than the first.

Regardless, events over the past two weeks have led me to a place that is completely worthy of a complicated, lyrically passionate Florence + The Machine song. That being the case, I decided to take my own advice, which has been tossed out countless times to friends and students over the years. I figure that if I am going to suggest to others that they "write it out," then maybe I should do the same. After all, that advice has always come from a feeling of certainty that all the world's problems can be hashed out on a few blank sheets of paper. Draw it, write it, whatever, if it's on the paper it's out of your head, right? Well, let's put that to the test.

I'm sure that if you're reading this you're either curious about my life for some reason, Facebook stalking (which is pretty much the same thing), or maybe you actually enjoy my cynicism and lame attempts at humor. Whichever category you fit under, I bet you read my entry last week about my friend Shawn. Maybe his death kicked something loose inside of me, because it seems like I've been on a downward spiral since then. Re-reading that now, it seems cliche, but all cliches were created for a reason I guess, because that is exactly how I have felt, like I'm spiralling away and I will never find a safe place to rest.

Why do I feel this way? It's been difficult to figure this out, mostly because I talk to students every day who have things a million times worse than I ever have. To them, my story would seem like a fairy tale. A friend told me tonight that my problems are just as real, and that I feel them just as deeply as my students feel their own issues. I suppose that on some level, that's true, the same way it's true that I seem to be rambling on here without making any real points.

This spiral feels like drowning at times, when I'm lying in bed at night with my eyes wide open, knowing that my body needs rest. In those moments, I feel as though my eyes may never close and at the same time I am afraid to sleep because I know that I will wake up to the same life that I shut my eyes on.That is my biggest fear: the sameness. I am afraid that I will stay stuck in this rut where I am caught between a million families, all of whom need something different from me. The rut that I've been living in for at least the past year and a half, where for some reason my awesome friends aren't enough to fill the yawning loneliness that is fueling my spiral.

At face value, the people around me assume that my loneliness is a result of a lack of male companionship, and I guess that's part of it, if I'm being honest. Actually this particular feeling deserves capitalization, because it's more of an entity at this point. One that sleeps, eats and breathes with me. In that case, The Loneliness was born out of a lack of career, a lack of new adventures and maybe for the first time in my life, a lack of direction.

So what do I do? Apparently I get wine drunk or watch a chick flick and cry to a friend. Or maybe I take my own advice and write it out. Did it work? Maybe. I have a feeling my Florence + The Machine song is as yet unfinished. For now though, I'll stick with this: