To summarize, the topic of the moment, derived from my just previous post, is a reflection on my survival over years of career in high school without escape, first as an English teacher, then as a counselor. How have I done it?
Of course, the history is of me as a person, which is less interesting than the more general group of people to whom my experience might apply. In fact, as unique as I would like to think myself to be, the sobering reality for most of us is that we are creatures of our culture, and the times in which we grow up, and the experiences that typify our coming of age. My experiences are not isolated ones.
I attended college in the sixties, on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, both of which had a profound imprint on students of my generation. The old order was being called into question, a new world seemed on the verge of forming (so much for naïveté), and it was a time of choosing sides. In a substantial number of us a previously dormant sense of social justice was awakened, and the corporate world and it’s beckoning, wealth laden opportunities seemed in the camp of the enemy. “Sell out” was a common charge and secret fear. I would be a suspect for that camp, a lucky one with an elite education and a major in economics. Classmates were already working in New York banks.
For my part, a transformation began out of my awareness. I found myself tutoring elementary students in a neighborhood near campus. A local housing march during my senior year, what I thought was for substantial reasons, earned the derision of some of the classmates with whom I had been friendly. Sitting in our august wood paneled dining room, hall of privilege, I listened to their frankly racist comments, and felt a canyon opening between us. A talk on desegregation in Hartford fascinated me with its complex dynamics. When the time inevitably came for me to get off the parental dole, and I knew not where else to jump, I decided to go to graduate school to become an English teacher. I remember it as a choice toward a noble cause, one greater than myself. More grandly and naively, I felt myself somehow on the right side of history. Hey – give me a break – that was the sixties and early seventies. Tricky Dick was about to embody the great evil.
There was another strain in my decision which was fundamentally more selfish, unconscious, and became amplified in my work over time. Though as a young man I saw teaching as on the “noble” side of the equation, I am basically suspicious of nobility in the service of others. What does the doer get out of it, I wonder?
In college I noticed I enjoyed the interaction with the tutees with whom I worked, and with the incipient educator types and mentors with whom I came into contact. I enjoy high school students today for their freshness of perspective, their humor, and their as yet often unspoiled willingness to let others into their life who they consider genuine and concerned for their well being. As my career in schools has lengthened, once tasks have been completed in our counseling staff meetings, our gathering has devolved into conversation, as therapeutic as it was pleasurable, a momentary escape from the challenges of the work into friendship. Consultation with the many teachers with whom I have worked harbored a similar mix of professional focus and congenial exchange.
The wealth of relationships with students and with my school colleagues touches something fundamental in my existence as a human being. Whatever good I may do with individual students, or whatever I contribute along with others for the common good, it is this placement in a network of relationships, this camaraderie, that makes the work rich for me, and which sustains me. Today I recognize these relationships as the spine of my staying power over time.
I salute educator types for their compassion, for their sense of humor (sometimes of the gallows variety), for their love of kids and dedication to their growth — teachers, counselors, administrators alike – and for the common purpose we have shared. In the struggle with the bureaucratic elements of a school system, I can always fall back upon calling a kid in to work on whatever he or she needs, or share a joke with the guy in the next office, who understands perfectly where I am coming from.
But don’t get me wrong; the helping of others is a good thing. I need not be one who rejects the corporate world to seek meaning in a teaching career, or in other good works. I already got that part figured out. To be continued.
Sometimes we need to be reminded, through the fog of memory, of what things were really like back in the turbulent 60s. It is tempting for us old sods and farts to think of ours as an idealistic generation, almost all of whom had sterling values and high-minded intentions. Especially when we are in an apologetic mode, as boomers, and feel obliged to urge on folks in the next generation or two with a message that says ” sorry, we did our best, but we screwed a lot of things up, so now it’s up to you”.
The Schooldog remembers a more complex and divided age-set in the D’port dining hall and similar venues, with a widening canyon of consciousness, and little social awareness and empathy on the other side. He is dead right. Issues of social justice, inequality, reconciliation between the races, and “underdevelopment” in the new nations of Africa, for example, flashed brightly on our radar screens; for many of our peers, either the radar was tuned to a different frequency, or perhaps the equipment was never plugged in.
So its is good, if sobering, to remember where and how we got started on our journeys, and to see how much of that idealism has been sustained over 40 years. For him, for me, and for many people whom I work with, I think the answer is reassuring. Pragmatism has taken its necessary place alongside the call to service. When work brings satisfactions, we “pay it forward”, and our service to others is much more than just fulfilling a duty – it pays handsome dividends to our minds and our souls.
But I cannot help but wonder why Schooldog elected not to take a leadership track and put his considerable talents to work as a principal. Was it the absence of good role models in the system around and above him? Did he conclude that the goal of fixing (or at least influencing) the system was just a big windmill? Or did “love of kids and dedication to their growth” trump the ambitions that had been drilled into us as Ivy League high achievers “destined to lead”?