This is an ampersand, but I didn’t know that until yesterday. Before that, it was just the “and” symbol that I doodled occasionally during really bad PD’s about how the greatest rapper of all time is Shakespeare. Tangentially, If you haven’t watched this sketch, you should probably watch it right now. Especially with the little piece of irony built in that Lin Manuel Miranda has every Social Studies teacher in the universe using Hamilton to teach U.S History. Seriously, once I heard somebody say that if you are not using Hamilton to teach History you are a terrible teacher. They were serious.
But I digress. And I learned from Adam, my illustrious co-blogger, that sometimes it is funny to keep digressing. Ampersands seem like one of those things that will one day make me look stupid in a conversation with a lawyer or a doctor. They will say something like “Jason will know what that is called, he is an English teacher.” But I won’t know what it is called, so I will mumble something frantically hoping that somebody changes the conversation before I have to admit that my knowledge of obscure english grammar is second rate. It’s like when someone asks a History teacher a question about gilded age politics.
“Look. All we teach is the wars.”
Ok. I’ll stop this painful digression and get back to the “and” symbol.
Yesterday, a friend of mine told me about a guy he knew that had the ampersand tattooed on his arm. My friend said that guy was trying to remind himself of all the “and” statements that he embodied, and all the “either/or” statements that were probably less true. Then, my friend told me that he thinks he is a decent father and friend AND he did some really shitty things that he wanted to tell me about. Both of those things are true in his life and he was trying to own each of them instead of deflecting praise for being a good dad and trying convince himself to feel less guilty for his bad decisions.
He was trying to fight against a world that always tries to categorize as either a “great father” or a “bad person.” Instead of saying he was either/or, he was loudly insisting that he was both/and.
This seemed important, so I thought about it for the last day. I’m always afraid of missing something important.
I thought about it when my wife asked me how my day was yesterday.
Usually, I just want to say “yes” because that seems annoyingly snarky and creative and I pride myself in those kinds of answers.
The truthful answer to that question, I’m learning, is in the Ampersand like my friend told me. If we are honest, most teaching days live there.
It was good & bad.
I made some terrible decisions & some that turned out ok.
I’m hopeless to the point of giving up & I have a Gatsby-esque "readiness" for something amazing to happen.
I’m exhausted and can barely stand & I’m ready to do it again tomorrow.
I’m crying & I’m laughing.
I hate teaching & I love teaching.
Most days, my “yes” answer to ‘how was your day’ is sufficient. I move on to dancing with my daughters or using my bad dinner-making skills as some kind of silent therapy.
Sometimes though, If I really need to talk, my wife gives me some space to let me process all the ANDs. Then, as if I am remembering some buried trauma, it all starts coming out in stories.
For every 10 students that tell me that my class changed their life, there are ten more who tell me my class isn’t making any sense. I teach a great lesson 2nd period that falls flat on its face in front of a roaring mob of 11th graders later in the day. I have three great conversations with students, only to be told later I never have time to listen by another. I notice, time after time, how stacked our education system is against some young people and it can feel hopeless. But then, amazingly, I see those same students push through our burdensome systems and I have hope again. I feel the pats on the back from others, and the punches in the gut from myself. I’m better than I ever thought I could be, and not quite good enough. There are moments in most days that bring tears over broken situations, homelessness, drugs, death, depression, anxiety, and all the life that people have experienced. Then there are moments of joy and laughter, where a student dancing or screaming or telling a story makes the whole room laugh.
It’s “the best of times & the worst of times.”
Not the best of times OR the worst of times.
The challenge is that both sides of that ampersand exist in equal measure, and we ignore some important truth about teaching when we diminish either.
This year, I’m trying to remember that I love teaching & I hate teaching. I’m trying to be thankful for that. A true understand of this profession requires an embrace of the tears and the failures, and an acceptance of the joys and successes.
And that might be the only appropriate way to respond to this job.
“How was your day, J?”
“Yes. It was all of that.”