My first week of teaching was disastrous: I cried every day driving home and grabbed the phone to call my editor to beg for my job back more than once.
The only job opening at the time was for a 7th grade writing teacher, and I took it with the kind of hubris that only a non-teacher would. Any delusions of being like a teacher in the movies were quickly dismantled by the realities of facing street-wise and suspicious 12-year-olds.
For those of you seeking to deny your ego by going on a retreat to Tibet, I can save you some money. Go teach middle school and find out just how quickly your ego can disappear.
About two months into daily ego erasure thanks to the boy sitting in the first seat on the first row, I ginned up my courage to make my first parent phone call to express concern about Juan.
Juan, a jittery, hormonal, bored boy like many of my students, spent his time drawing genitalia on his desk, ignored our reading to work on writing love notes to the girl two rows over. Other times, during my read-alouds, he coaxed other boys into wrestling and shadow-boxing. When I asked most anything of him, he responded by rolling his eyes and making a sucking noise with his teeth.
“Man, I hate this class,” he said as he commenced to carving U SUK into his desktop.
This critique, one I’d leveled at myself so many times, was enough to snap me out of the fear of calling his parents. With the school counselor’s translation, I was able to detail all of Juan’s crimes into vivid Spanish.
“He is very upset and wants you to know he will handle this,” Paula said, hanging up.
And that was that, I believed. Nothing more would come of it. To soothe my still-trembling ego, I imagined some possible scenarios where Juan would have his Nintendo locked away or be made to mow every lawn on his block for free as penance.
The next day, I was surprised when he and his father came to my room after school. Juan’s father stepped in, stooped from hard labor, his hands raw, his face lined from years of squinting.
I was afraid that he had come to tell me that I was a fraud and to demand that his son be transferred to another class. But my defensiveness quickly dropped when he took off his snap-back ball hat, speaking to me in the tones usually reserved for those in power.
“Ms. Peeples,” he began, “I come to apologize for Juan’s disrespect to you.” He pulled Juan forward and looked at him. “This lady is one you respect. This is La Maestra. She is teaching you so you don’t be like me. You respect La Maestra and you apologize.”
I’d never heard the term before. He called me La Maestra.
Whether he knew it or not, Juan’s father reversed all my resentment and self-pity. All I could do was respond by smiling and thanking him profusely.
“No, I thank you,” he said.
I stood staring at the door after they’d left, feeling my heart squeezing inside me. Juan’s father gave me a title and an identity that day that I carry as an honor, as a burden, as a responsibility, as a noble title, as the description of my life’s work.
La Maestra. Yo soy La Maestra.
And I felt the truth of Mary Oliver’s words bloom inside my memory, like roses after rain:
Sometimes I need
only to stand
wherever I am
to be blessed.
Image credit: Riccardo Anandale/Unsplash0