A couple years ago Jason asked me if I get nervous before the start of a school year. I didn't know how to answer him because I’m a prideful person. In my head, answering “yes” meant I was scared of teenagers and “no” meant I was Jack Black during the first half of “School of Rock”.
To most, being nervous after 10 years in education means nervousness is a part of your identity; avoid coffee and best-man speeches and you’ll probably be fine. Jason isn’t most folks. He sees things and speaks in a unique way. He’s a dangerous combination of blunt and intuitive. We’ve both been working in schools for a while and so he knew I no longer got nervous over talking in front of a class or following proper snow-day phone-chain protocol. I knew his curiosity went a bit deeper. He’s also a good question asker; which is one of the greatest skills a person can have.
At the time I think I answered Jason by deflecting because the reality of how I feel before a school year is more vulnerable. If you know me, you know deflection is pretty standard. My response was similar to how I imagine Floyd Mayweather responding if someone had asked him if he would be nervous to fight Andy Richter. “Nah man, I’m pretty relaxed about it” is what I think I said. As mentioned, I mostly didn’t want Jason to think I was a coward or not good at my job. The reality is I am a coward and there are plenty of days that I’m really shitty at my job.
The truth is that a new school year makes me simultaneously as excited and as nervous as I’ve ever been. It’s a rush beyond compare to work with young folks for 180 days in a row.
Witnessing ups and downs, highs and lows, gets a lot of buildup from educators but the real joy often lies in the mundane middle area; a kindergartner trying (but failing) to hold a door or an 8th grader arguing the existence of redemptive value in the music of Bobby Schmurda. Waiting on a staircase with a 14 year-old who is last to be picked up from basketball practice is a moment that matters. I remember being that 14 year old boy not long ago. I sometimes feel privileged to a crippling level, that my job enables me to share moments like these with students everyday.
Feeling that your life is made better by your occupation is probably not uncommon. I’m sure orthodontists feel great when they identify dental irregularities.
My nerves are in realizing how consistently I fail the young folks that have so greatly enriched my life. I don’t mean fail in the careless way that Jack Black fails at the beginning of the movie. I care a lot. My failure is in being a part of a system which has failed and continues to fail folks living in our inner-cities. I wish we were better. I wish we were seen as a priority.
In preparation for every school year, I go to great lengths to try to minimize my failure as much as possible. I do some normal thing like revamp curriculum, attend conferences, and promise myself I'll be in bed by 10 o'clock every night (I've already failed, it's literally 11 o'clock right now) but I also do some neurotic, borderline superstitious things like: Buy coffee bean grinders, new glasses, and slimmer fitting pants. Spend hundreds of dollars to paint and redesign my office. Brainstorm complicated video projects. Unsuccessfully try to read more. Listen to Terry Gross, Howard Stern, Marc Maron, Norm MacDonald, and Charlie Rose interviews. Watch Good Will Hunting 7 or 8 times a week. Go to the gym more often and talk with my girlfriend about trimming down to “school weight”; which for me is 160 lbs. Write more on an at times overly ambitious blog.
I might fail again this year, in fact I definitely will. But the day to day of a school year with the young people I get to work with is something that I love. I think it matters, and so I want to notice it more. Maybe sharing it with people who haven’t smelled a school lunch or organized themselves in a trapper keeper for a few years will help me to do that.