Teacher Appreciation Week: Loss, Service, and the Obligations Of a Teacher

Tuesday was Teacher Appreciation Day, and this entire week has been dedicated to the respect and acknowledgment of those working in the noblest profession. The pats on the back and free burritos have been completely welcome, but the time to reflect and appreciate what my peers and I have done has proven elusive. More troubling, I’ve found that despite my best intentions to appreciate the support, the impact of these gestures is ephemeral, quickly diluted by the immensity of what it means to teach. I’ve found taking a week to recognize the work of teaching is a bit like being a mariner, looking up from the navigational charts we’ve studied the rest of the year only to find the ocean at all horizons. I comfort myself with the map as an artifact, allowing myself the illusion that I hold the expanse in my hands, knowing full well it has always been the other way around.

We appreciate teachers in the context of what has been given and has been done — the little mundane details that, in the aggregate, tilt the odds in favor of a better future and a better world. We allow ourselves the hope that dreams can be realized in formative years and maintained by force of will, or a well-timed scholarship, or something as simple as a sense of belonging among the best and brightest. But to belong is to acknowledge that there is something much larger than us out there. I feel small this week in the way that all people who hold jobs of importance do — when we appreciate, we come to terms with the limits of the wisdom we seek to impart and the infinitude of the conditions we seek to improve.

Teacher Appreciation Day was not yet over this year when I heard that we had lost a student, one whom I did not teach and did not know except in passing. I was sitting on a porch with friends when I picked up the phone, taking in the last minutes of daylight. I had a deadline for this piece that night, speaking to the virtues of a day dedicated to teachers. I stepped away from my friends for privacy as I tried to gather more information. A van drove by over the speed limit, fast enough to muffle the words, so I had to ask again if the details were true, the names and circumstances, the facts in the heat of the moment. I’ve played this part too many times, I thought. A calm voice confirming details, the choral refrains of how awful this is and that it keeps happening, the gratitude for information and the apologies for having to spread it, the reluctant end of the phone call, the half-measure of rest before returning to the remainder of the day, ruminations on it all, and finally, sleep.

So it is that the same warmth that allows us to bask in the successes of our graduating seniors on bleachers, in sundresses, and in summer suits, also ushers in this season of violence. The good weather and long hours of light that we take advantage of, that let us stretch graduation parties from afternoon to evening, are the same things that entice our children to remain too long in places that should have been safe. We see memorials blossom in May in forgotten corners of the city, a thousand sympathy cards distilled to a vibrant message tagged under cover of darkness, on walls that once provided shelter a long time ago.

One could say that next week teachers will be less appreciated except by those in our care, the ones who matter most to us. Come Monday, I’ll draw the shades in the morning to reveal the desks to the light of day, as if reintroducing them after many years apart. I will tell corny jokes and mist kids with water to wake them up and eventually draw the shades closed to protect us from the incipient heat of the summer.

I will stand outside at the end of a long practice to look at crooked shadows of goalposts and roofs under construction, and not for the first time I'll search the stands for the people who are no longer here. Sometimes I feel that the springtime is just heat bearing down from hills too old to name, coursing through the poorer districts, inner cities, and forgotten towns, carrying the scent of fire. We look for each other out there, celebrate that we’ve made it this far, generation to generation, and yet all too often we are bereft. Blink, and we are left with ashes.