I’m still processing the staggering news from last week about being selected as one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year. This on top of a series of lightning strikes this past year: campus, district, regional, then incomprehensibly: Texas Teacher of the Year.
Emotionally, it’s so much to take in, like going from being invisible to suddenly visible. That transition is stunning. Stunning as in rendered mute. Stunning as in feeling your brain melt. Stunning as in seeing your picture on the district website and realizing that you should’ve paid to have some discreet airbrushing.
As I sat in the silence of a school emptied for the weekend last Friday, I remembered a story from my first year of teaching.
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 the job however, I finally ginned up my courage to make my first parent phone call to express concern about their son’s behavior in class. Juan, (not his real name), had acted just like you’d expect a jittery, hormonal, bored boy to do: drawing genitalia on his desk, spending most of the class writing love notes to the girl two rows over, wrestling and shadow-boxing his two pals during read-alouds, and rolling his eyes and making a sucking noise with his teeth as a response to most of what I said.
So 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 there staring at the spot 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.
Image credit: Hoverfish, Monumento a la Maestra, Uruguay0