Counting My Blessings

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.  ~ Henry Brooks Adams

Drunken desert grackles and wrens were dancing the cha-cha and singing until all hours last night. My Palo Brea is awash in yellow flowers that are apparently quite tasty and fun for birdies.  They were having a nectar festival under the stars.  I finally had to resort to wearing ear plugs so I could get some sleep. As I fell out with my doglet curled up like a little walnut near the small of my back, I listened to their voices (still audible, but not as loud) and listened to my own breathing, feeling lucky — blessed really — by what had been a long, challenging, exhausting day. I graded papers until I felt brain dead, and I was still nowhere near finished. Then I went out to a Buddhist meeting that I didn’t feel like going to  — knowing that if I felt that resistant — I must desperately need an infusion from the group I practice with. (I was right.  I came home feeling much better.)

Teaching is one of those jobs that you really cannot understand unless you actually do it.  

I get angry when I hear some mouth-trap yammering away at how under worked and overpaid college teachers are. I want to email them a link to Taylor Mali’s “What Teacher’s Make.”   A recent Op-Ed in the Washington Post (written by someone who is not a teacher) just about made the top of my head blow off. (In it, the author contended that the average college teacher makes $88K a year, and spends about 20 hours a week working.  Plus, you know, all that time off in the summer…)

I make $35K a year.  I routinely work 50-60 hours per week.  That doesn’t include prep time.  My salary isn’t a secret.  I work for a public university, so it  is public record.  That said, I hardly think that amount qualifies me as someone who is “rolling in dough.”  But, I get by.  And I acknowledge that because I love what I do, I am usually quite content with life in general, and teaching writing in particular.  Why?  Because I am good at what I do.  Because I am able to help my students see things differently.  Because I can latch on to what is lovely and luminous about a piece and use those things to encourage the student to keep writing.  I am good at what I do because I wholeheartedly believe that having access to one’s voice is crucial.  I know that being able to discern whether a source is a credible source or a bullshit one, is important.  Access to language — to our words, our voices, our thoughts — allows us to communicate effectively with others.  If we are not taught well, we become the type of people who are easily (and often) manipulated or taken advantage of.  I never want that to happen to any of my students. I want them to be discerning, thoughtful, reflective people who add to our discourse — be it public or private.  So, I teach.  I teach because I am capable, not because I am not.

I often wonder if many of the pervasive problems in our society would not be eased if everyone had enjoyed school and been the apple of at least one teacher’s eye.  I was blessed with some good teachers and some bad ones.  I got sent to the principal’s office in 6th grade for wearing a halter dress to school.  Mind you, I had on a sweater that completely covered my back.

My male teacher apparently had issues with my attire.  Really.

It makes me laugh to think of it now.  My students routinely come into my classes wearing (basically) camisoles or tank tops, short shorts, and flip-flops.  After all, this is Arizona.  Everybody dresses like they are heading out for a day at the beach.

One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings.  The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.  ~ Carl Jung

Admittedly, I had (mostly) wonderful, gifted teachers.  Mrs. Collins taught kindergarten.  I loved going to school and adored her.  She taught me to paint and play and make up stories.  My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Walker, read all of the Little House on the Prairie books to us after lunch each day.  I fell in love with stories in her classes.  Mrs. McLeod gave me editing and writing to do for the middle school paper in 8th grade.  It’s been 40 years — and I still love it.  Mr. Beath was both my drama coach and my mentor/father figure/friend from the age of 14 on.  He was 27 when we met; we are still friends on Facebook 38 years later.  From him, I learned about theater and art and stretching myself in ways I didn’t think were possible.  I fell in love with plays and poems and literature because of his influence.  I was graced with so many more wonderful teachers: art teachers and English teachers and teachers who saw my raw passion for learning.  I am so thankful that each one of them blessed my life and taught me all that they did.  I am a teacher (and a writer) now because I encountered all those good teachers.

I am thinking about all this, this morning, as I put the pedal to the metal to finish madly grading all the essays and tests and short reports and presentations I need to grade.

Education is so vitally important.  

Life-long learning is, in my opinion, a necessity.  

The engagement in life that happens as you work to master a new skill or learn a new technique or integrate an innovative or creative idea — some call it flow — pulls you into the river of life.  I have been swimming in that river for the past five decades.  Although I am sometimes (OK, often) exhausted by my job — I never tire of seeing my students “get it.”  I love the light in their faces and their passion for running after their aspirations.  They are changing the world by changing themselves first.

I am glad the semester is coming to a close. In fact, you have no earthly idea how glad I am to be contemplating some down time. However, don’t worry.  This bookish girl will be back in the fall with her pencils sharpened and her hair in a French knot, ready to see what her students will teach her next.

© 2012  Shavawn M. Berry  All rights reserved

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