Once a Teacher, Always a Teacher

Never in my life has winter break seemed so necessary. Not even when I was recovering from my first semester in the stifling libraries of Sciences-Po, my eyes aching from staring intensely at the pages of academic articles and mes dissertations, did this small window of repose feel so crucial. Teaching is really fucking hard.

I grew up in classrooms. During my elementary years, I went immediately from my own school to the larger, more intimidating campuses of my uncles and my mother. The bell rang, I got on the bus, and I bounced and chattered through every stop until there was only me and the driver. Then I moved up to the front of the bus to chat with her (or was it a him?) as we neared the middle school. From there I would either go to my uncle’s classroom on the middle school campus, or walk over to the high school on the other end of the football field. I sat out the remainder of the afternoons in the back of the room watching my uncle or my mother teach. My most vivid memories are of my mom’s Advanced Placement English classes. The Scarlet Letter. “The Graduate.” “The Fall of the House of Usher.” These were the works of my childhood, the prose, intertwined with the melancholy voices of Simon and Garfunkel, weaving a refrain in the background of my thoughts. I don’t know when I fell in love with literature and words and storytelling. But those countless days spent in the back of my mother’s classroom listening to her dive head first into the often dark and gruesome tales of humanity had something to do with it. They also had something to do with me becoming a teacher.

The adults in my life modeled teaching, and so I mimicked them. As soon as my little sister could take on the role of my pupil I set up a school for her in the basement. I wrote on the chalkboard my parents had bought us as she sat in a red antique desk copying my letters and numbers onto paper. We practiced the ABCs and counting to 10. We learned colors, sang songs, played games. It was all a game, really, but for me it was very real. I was her teacher and she was my student. I loved every minute of it.

I would not say today that I love every minute of teaching. On the contrary, I spend much of my time being very uncomfortable, especially when it comes to discipline. I’ve found that yelling at students actually makes me feel dirty. It has somewhat of a dementor effect, as if some dark force swooped down upon me and sucked out my soul. I try not to yell or “be mean,” and in turn my students take advantage of my compassion. I’m learning, though, to use discipline in a more constructive and effective way, and as I become more comfortable with it, to use it as a tool rather than a whip. It still requires and immeasurable amount of energy, though. Teaching takes all of me, from lesson planning, to grading, to being up in front of a class for five hours a day. I plan five different hour-long presentations everyday, five days a week, for an audience that doesn’t want to be there and doesn’t want to listen. If you didn’t get it the first time, teaching is really fucking hard.

That is why these two weeks of break are so needed. That is also why it’s been three months since I posted anything on this blog. By the end of the day, I’ve been talking for so long that I have no words left. Each day I am emptied. Only yoga and food and booze and sleep can replenish me. Well, only that and my students.

Ironically enough, the very soul-sucking, heart-wrenching, energy-depleting creatures that torment me all day are also the source of my happiness. Just as they make every day miserable, they make every day worth it. I live for the small moments—a student grasping a concept for the first time, a group of boys who are typically fighting working happily together, a student finding a typo in my own writing (we call them “word crimes”), a girl who used to be rude and disruptive slowly transforming into a kind and caring young woman, hugs and hellos from little ones who aren’t even my students, baking 84 Christmas cookies and watching my students eat them gleefully. The list is endless.

And so, during these two weeks, the truth is I will never set aside my teacher hat. I will think of my students, my lessons, books I’m teaching next quarter, things I need to do, activities to plan. I will talk about teaching at Christmas dinner, over coffee with old friends, here on this blog. I will tell stories and relive the worst and best moments of the past five months. Ms. Martin will not disappear. But in all honesty, she’s always been there, and she’s here to stay.

Smiles and all the best,

Savannah

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Becoming Ms. Martin: How and Why I became an English Teacher

Being an adult means eating dark chocolate with breakfast.

Or at least, that’s what it meant as I sat down to journal this morning between bites of oatmeal and sips of green tea. Like every morning, my last bite of oatmeal created a sense of loss on my taste buds, which prompted me, like every morning, to lick the bowl with desperation (another perk of adulthood, at least when you’re living alone). But this morning, not even that could banish my longing. And so I savored two pieces of Ghirardelli Twilight Delight and now I feel much better.

All this and much more has become commonplace in my life over the past two months. July brought many changes. I moved out of my condo that I shared with one of my dearest friends and moved into a small one-bedroom house that I share with me, myself, and my pet fish. I quit riding my bike to work and class and started driving my car. I left my job as a barista and found something more personally fulfilling: teaching. With my new job, I secured health and dental insurance, a salary, a contract, and 80 middle schoolers. I stopped flashing my student ID at Albertson’s on Saturdays to get the 10 percent discount. When the cashier commented on the pile of 99-cent notebooks I stacked atop the counter—”Back to school! Are you at the U?”—I replied, “Oh no, I’m a teacher. These are for my kids.”

My kids. I never thought I’d be watching over 80 6th-through-9th graders only two months after graduating from college. But now, I spend five days a week in the company of pre-and-mid-pubescents, loving them, hating them, and somewhere in there, teaching them, though I think I’m learning more from them than they are from me. For this political science major who once had her heart set on diplomacy and NGO work, this decision may seem tangential. Yet, when I saw the ad on Craigslist and sent in my résumé, I did so with something stronger than confidence. It was clairvoyance. I knew without knowing why that I was meant to do it. That becoming “Ms. Martin” was a critical juncture along my journey.

That doesn’t mean I acted purely from some greater calling within myself. Two things prompted me to begin scouring the internet for something new. One, I felt over-worked, bored, and unfulfilled at my former job. I could only make so many lattes and pour so many Dragoon IPAs before I started craving something more meaningful. Two, I needed more money. Not receiving a scholarship to pay for my yoga teacher training, as beneficial as it is to my personal growth, is also expensive. I was prepared to pay for the training, but it would drain my savings. So, I began the Craigslist comb, and soon enough, there it was: A charter school on the south side of Tucson was looking for a junior high English Language Arts teacher. A couple weeks later, that teacher was me.

My classroom bookshelf

The library I inherited in my classroom 


Now I go to bed at 10 each night and wake up at 5:45, giving me enough time to shower, eat, meditate, and feed my fish before zipping off to school. I leave the house with four bags—my purse, my lunch box, my bag of ungraded papers, and my bag of yoga clothes for after work. I pull into the parking lot around 7:40, sign in at the office, and grab my attendance sheet. First hour, 6th grade, starts at 8:30. Each class is an hour, and each hour is different. The 6th graders come in sleepy some days and rowdy the others. The 7th graders either want to talk all hour or work like angels. The 8th graders either can’t stop derailing the class or can’t stop asking questions. Out of the five classes that I teach, only 9th grade is consistent. There are only eight students in the class because most of their peers left the charter school to go to standard high schools. They are quiet and reserved, but we have a good time together. Because no time is wasted on discipline or classroom management in my 9th grade class, I allow us to stray. We take alternative paths through weekends and pop music and idioms, but I am always able to use our digressions as fuel for discussion. I’ve learned that learning is most engaging when it resembles real life. And for my students, real life is rich and dramatic and tumultuous, full of change and discovery and loss. For some of my students, real life is like a horror story from the streets of Tijuana.

Teaching where I do has proven a remarkably humbling and eye-opening experience.  Many of my students are from Mexican families who have been divided along the Borderlands. Some have been torn from their parents to live with tías and tíos on the American side of the border. Some have lost their fathers to bloodshed in Mexican streets, American streets, Tucson streets. Others have never met their baby brothers because the toddlers could not survive the journey to the U.S.. Others return to Mexico frequently, missing days of school at a time. Their lives look nothing like those of the characters I fell in love with as a kid. And as a white middle class woman, there is little I can draw from to help me comprehend the totality of their experiences, each with their own moments of sorrow, struggle, and success. All I have is Arizona pulsing through my veins and Humanity drumming in my heart. I know the tingle of tamarind on my tongue and the singe of the sun on my skin. I know the crunch of corn tortilla chips and the smell of carne asada in the kitchen. I know the ache of losing a grandmother. I know the weariness of being far from home. I will never claim to know what my students endure, but I hope to gain insight into what they overcome. As their teacher, I hope to help them turn all they have lived into fuel so that they may combine that fuel with knowledge and, like a fire, feed their own self-actualization.

I realized at some point in college that that is what I’m passionate about: helping others, particularly youth, access and use the opportunities available to them to give them agency, to self-actualize. I know I am only one young, completely inexperienced teacher in one, small school on Tucson’s south side, but I also know that on our best days, my students and I create something powerful together. We create a ripple somewhere in the universe by learning with and teaching one another, and that ripple joins with another and yet another until, one day, the universe is hit by a hurricane, and a disadvantaged, immigrant youth defies all the odds and not only passes the AIMS test, but goes to college.

That’s why I responded to that Craigslist ad two months ago. That’s why I want to teach yoga. That’s why I don’t want to work in the State Department or UNESCO.  Because, for me, a classroom of kids finding empowerment in the words of Sandra Cisneros and a studio of yogis singing om to the sound of their unified hearts are where the tremors start. These places and these moments are the axes of change, where the Earth splits and the plates shift and the world is reincarnated—not always better, but undoubtedly different.

 

 

 

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Let’s talk about yoga (finally)

Although this blog has featured many a subject, from where I’m traveling to what I’m eating to what I’m feeling, it has never seen a single post on yoga. Yoga: an activity I do, on average, at least four times a week. Yoga: a practice that has grounded me and empowered me through the most trying years of my life. Yoga: a philosophy, a life style, a devotion that has captured my heart and emboldened my spirit. I dedicate a large portion of my life to the practice, and yet, I’ve never been able to write about it. Perhaps the task of writing about something so intricate and so vast intimidated me. Perhaps I feared that if I shared the details of my practice with readers it would lose its intimacy. It would no longer be my practice. I realize now that those fears were unfounded. Writing about yoga and sharing my questions, insights, and processes surrounding it is part of the practice, too. Even so, had I attempted to pour my thoughts onto the page the way I pour sweat onto the mat, I would not have been capable. I wouldn’t have been ready.

Now, I know that the lessons I’ve learned and the work I’ve done throughout several years of practice have been in preparation for this—for creating a new union, a new yoga, between my practice and my writing. What brings me to the page to write about yoga now is something that will take me to my mat later—

In August, I’ll be starting a yoga teacher training program here in Tucson, and I had applied for a scholarship to help me pay for it. The application process was emotionally and creatively challenging, requiring much self-reflection and soul-searching. By the time I completed my essays, I felt I had bled onto the page and bared my heart, raw, red, and throbbing. But I also felt empowered, for responding to the prompts had helped me articulate and understand my own motivation for doing the teacher training, and even more importantly, for practicing yoga at all.

When I turned in my application, I knew that doing the teacher training was the right path, the only path, I could take in this place and time. Still, this choice had been marred by my own self-doubt surrounding my drastic change in careers. I had spent three years studying and working my ass off so that I could be a diplomat or a foreign correspondent or a prestigious something or other, and here I was, after all that turmoil, choosing to become a yoga teacher? Blah blah blah. It was a big deal for me. It was daunting, and I had the idea that if I received this scholarship, it would be a sign that the universe affirmed and condoned my decision. Getting this scholarship would be my validation.

In the following weeks, I would send a prayer to the universe every time a thought of the training or the scholarship came to mind. I would shoot affirmations up into the cosmos: “I got the scholarship. I deserve the scholarship. I got it, I got it, I got it.” And yet, it was not my prayers or affirmations that confirmed in my heart that I am heading in the right direction. It was—big surprise—the practice itself.

It happened unexpectedly, in a Bikram inspired hot yoga class that I had gone to on a whim. We’d hiked the room’s temperature to a steamy 106ºF, and I’d just done something I’ve never been bold enough to do in any yoga class before: take off my shirt. It was hotter in the room than it was outside, and sweat was dripping into my eyes, so I simply had no choice. I needed to let my skin breathe, and I needed something to wipe the sweat from my brow. The shirt had to come off.

After a particularly intense standing sequence, the instructor has us rest for a moment to return to our breath. I lay there on my mat, a human swamp, breathing heavily, heart beating like a war drum, and listened to the teacher. He was talking about hormones. “You know,” he said, “when the body reaches this temperature, it releases the same hormone that is released during sex.” I don’t know why, but this line filled me with joy. When I practice, I am making love, I thought, and the divine universal Spirit is my partner. I started to cry. As we pushed up and back into downward dog, tears of happiness mixed with drops of sweat. I was overwhelmed by the exhilarating, life-affirming feeling that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. On my mat. In a sweltering studio. Making love with yoga.

Bliss. Sweet, sweaty, burning bliss.

Tree Pose at Windy Point

Photo by Abby Cochran, Windy Point, Tucson, AZ

***

Last night, less that a week after this experience, I received an email that said I did not receive the scholarship for the teacher training. Thirteen people had applied, and only one scholarship was available. The studio did offer the remaining 12 of us a large discount on our training, though, and I gratefully accepted. Still, the news filled me with sadness. If this is supposed to be a sign from the universe, is this an indication that I am making a mistake? The obvious answer is no.

My validation for choosing this path cannot, and does not, come from any external judge or standard. That affirmation can only come from within, from my own heart and my own practice. I may not have gained the approval of an unknown scholarship donor, but that is completely irrelevant. I know I am meant to do this, and yoga helped me learn that. Yoga, with all of its challenge, sweat, discomfort, and power, taught me that the only source of validation that truly matters is that which comes from within. I am my only source of self-love and self-actualization. And I am exactly who, what, and where I need to be.

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When all else fails, read: my writer’s block library

At long last, the whistling steam escapes out the kettle of my dormant creativity and I can feel the subtle yet urgent nudge to put my fingers to the keys. My fingers fly like water hitting a hot stove. My desire to write pours onto the great glacier encapsulating my words stories lyrics and slowly starts to melt the ice. More steam disappearing into unseen air.

I’ve been gone awhile. I mean both that I have been absent from Untethered and absent from myself, or at least, my creative self. But now I am an airplane poised for takeoff, ready to return home. I feel like I am on the cusp of something, about to leap into an unknown precipice, one foot on the ground, the other in midair. I’ve been here before. What comes next is something I cannot foresee, but I’ve detected the creative current pulsing through my veins and though I try to be patient, I cannot wait for the blood to reach every point in my body. I need to write now.

But it’s hard. I feel as though I am awakening from a long hibernation. Don’t the bears sit drowsily in their caves and rub their eyes, stumble to the doors of their dens and cringe at the first ray of light before returning to the hunt? I’m the bear who has a hard time waking up.

Even so, this period of rest has not been spent in idleness. Like any writer estranged from her pen, I’ve been doing other important work: reading. I’ve been reading local magazines and papers. Spending hours with the New York Times. Scouring the blogosphere for people who inspire me. And sitting with (or working out with) books. “Read, read, read,” said William Faulkner. ““If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that,” said Stephen King. And so I have read. Here are the books that have kept me company lately:

1. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green 

This was only my first John Green book, and I’ve heard Looking for Alaska is superior, but I will say that it was a pleasant introduction. Heartfelt and authentic. Well-crafted, original characters. No masterpiece, but a good read.

2. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison

Reading this book was like listening to my grandparents tell stories from their youth, sipping iced tea on the porch on a hot summer evening, never wanting the sun to set because the nighttime would bring an end to the storytelling. Vivid, masterful, gets under your skin and into your heart.

3. Unmasterd: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell, by Katherine Angel

This raw, jarring book is written in a sort of prose poetry that sends you sprinting from page to page as you delve, with the author, into the complex world of sexuality, lust, love, and feminism. Sit with it for three hours and you’ll be longing to read it again, this time more slowly.

4. Currently reading: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

So far I love it. Don’t let its size scare you away.

5. And simultaneously reading: I Am Not Myself These Days, by Josh Kilmer-Purcell

A memoir about a young drag queen in New York. This Goodreads reviewer summed up my thoughts perfectly: “This book is like dirty, dirty candy. It’s ridiculous and silly and somewhat awful, but just terribly, absurdly compelling.” Sometimes I have to pause on the elliptical because I’m laughing so hard.

 

As Ernest Hemingway said, “There is no friend as loyal as a book.” What books have kept you company lately?

Read on,

Savannah

 

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A Letter to My Grandmother

A lot has happened in the past five months that has kept me from blogging. But the most significant is the passing of my grandmother, who left us on March 11, exactly two months ago, after a brief experience with leukemia. On this Mother’s Day, I honor her and keep my promise to her by returning to this space and to writing. 

She was an angel even before death gave her wings.

***

Dearest Gramma,

Did you know when you faded that the void left by your absence would be so vast that I would not even be able to feel it? Like gravity, it would pull down down down upon all of me without my consent or awareness, enveloping everything with its subtle, unbeatable downward force. Even the heart is weighted by gravity.

Gramma, did you know that when you left I wouldn’t be there to say goodbye? That I’d be in the city you once escaped to to craft your own destiny, crafting my own. That my last words to you would be carried by waves through wires and clouds instead of through the mere zillions of atoms between your ears and my mouth had I sat beside you then. That you would not be able to reply, the cancer having stolen your voice. Did you know that I knew? But how could I say it, goodbye?

Did you know that the first thing I did when Momma told me was place my hands firmly on the ground and throw my feet up above my hips and try to do a handstand? I read once that God feels the Earth through our fingertips. Now, when I put my hands in the soil I think of you. I want you to feel life through my fingers, Gramma. I want you to touch the Earth and soak up the sun through my skin.

Did you hear me as I screamed? Driving back home for your send off, my voice bouncing off the walls of my car and back into my throat, I screamed and balled and broke. The promises I made you then I will keep. I will live for you, Gramma. I will write and I will travel and I will make art. I will let no one cage me nor tether me down. I will not settle. And I will love so fiercely and so freely that those with hate and fear in their hearts will shrink and crumble at my touch.

But—I will not forsake myself.

Did it fulfill you to love so thanklessly? Did you sacrifice out of love, or out of duty? Did you know that it wouldn’t be until you were yellowed and frozen and lifeless that all the people you worked so hard to nurture would finally show gratitude for your unconditional devotion? We took you for granted, and we stifled you, worked you like a horse to be left for dead. Especially him. He may not have killed you, but he certainly kept you from living.

I will never be as selfless as you. I can’t forgive him, and I can’t forgive us. And I will not do it. I will not step into your shoes and continue the death march. I may be “next,” but I refuse the position. I don’t know what you’d think about that, but I can’t worry about that now. I can only live how I want to live, which is now synonymous with how I think you deserved to live. On your deathbed you told me, “I never made my art.” Those words will never graze my lips.

Happy Mother’s Day, Gramma. You who taught me the joy of having dirt in my fingernails and watching flowers grow, who gave me crayons and paper and told me to let my imagination soar, who forced me to go to museums and exhibits that I still have not forgotten; you who split every piece of gum in half to teach me the value of saving, who scratched my back at night because you could not sing a lullaby, who made me a calendar so I could count the days until my parents’ return; you who told me a million times to put on sunscreen, who paid for voice lessons and guitar lessons and came to every show, who never told me I could not do. You who held me close as I cried into your shoulder and told me that your parents had gotten divorced too, and that you were OK. I would be OK, you said, everything would be OK.

You—you are the true mother of my spirit, my heart, my life. You—you from whence I came and from whence I shall grow. I am an extension of you, like a bird’s song transposed for a symphony. You—you have my eternal gratitude, reverence, and love.

mother's day, grandmother, love

I am not OK yet, Gramma. I am even less OK now that you’re gone. But please know that because of you, I am trying.

Yours, as I always have been and always will be,

Savannah

 

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