Planting & Pruning: Navigating doubts in teaching through honesty, faith, and love

Planting & Pruning:
Navigating doubts in teaching through honesty, faith, and love
by John Poole

I was once told that teaching is like spreading tree seeds. We spend an entire lifetime spreading the seeds, but will never see the tree. Teachers work for the hope of the future.
— John Poole

Her short, black hair curled into rivulets. They bounced when she moved her head or nodded. Her green eyeshadow highlighted her brown eyes. Her mascara curled her eyelashes up and out; these eyelashes left a whisper of black on her upper eyelids. Her mouth formed a flat line, neither a smile nor a frown. She sat sandwiched between the bookends of her grandparents, slouching in her chair with her hands folded in her lap. Her grandfather sat erect and stiff on her right, his World War II veteran baseball cap placed precisely on his head. Her grandmother fidgeted with her phone and ruffled in her purse. Five teachers, the counselor, and I sat on the other side of the table in various angles of recline. The brown table separated us from them. The faded blue carpet of the room and the brown chalkboard walls soaked in the light, leaving the dull room in perpetual shade. 

The interview began.

“Why do you want to come to this school?” 

Most students answered this question in simple terms. “I want to change myself” or “I want a new start” or some variation on these statements. Some elaborated, relating personal experiences of pain, and most let their statements stand alone. That afternoon, Joan (whose name has been changed here for privacy) answered simply and shockingly: “I don’t want to be like my mother.” 

On our side of the table, we exchanged several quick glances at each other, subtle smirks playing at the corners of our mouths. Her answer hung in the air. During the rest of the interview, my mind slipped back to her first answer, wondering why she didn’t want to be like her mother. Was her mother abusive? Did she use drugs? What made her so terrible? I invited Joan and her grandparents to sit in the main office while we made a decision as to whether Joan would be admitted to our school. 

This ritual constituted our admission process. Each student wanting to enter the school sat at this table and answered a set of pre-determined questions. Each of the interviewers asked a question in turn, and the rest of us would jot down answers and impressions. Some students resented this intrusion into their life. They sat slouched in the chair or mumbled answers to questions. Being admitted didn’t concern them—it was for a mother, a father, or someone outside of themselves. Some felt the pressure of jail time hanging over their heads. They sat forward, answered each question with precision, and punctuated each sentence with “yes sir” or “yes ma’am” or “no sir” or “no ma’am”. Others came in like scared mice, quietly entering the room, shyly answering questions. 

 After the interview, we deliberated. “Did you hear how she answered the first question? I can’t remember anyone ever giving an answer like that.” We discussed Joan and her reasons for coming. Each staff member shared feedback. We voted by raising our hands. We accepted Joan unanimously. 

In October of her first semester, I sat at my desk, working on a report for our school board. I heard shouts, screams and then, “Mr. Poole!” I glanced up from my desk and saw students gathering down the hallway. I jumped up and ran towards this group. The students formed an amoeba shape, trapping two girls inside. The brown paneled walls echoed each girl’s threats and obscenities. The amoeba contracted and expanded with the combatants’ lunges and feints. I pushed students aside, crowding into the circle. Joan had grabbed a young woman I’ll call Maria by the hair. She was pulling her forward with her left hand and swinging her right towards Maria’s face. Her breathing came in gasps between uttered threats. Maria cursed Joan and kicked at her leg. The kick glanced off, but it was enough that Joan let go of Maria’s hair. I stood between them as our science teacher and social studies teacher pushed their way in. The science teacher grabbed Joan from behind and held her around the waist. The social studies teacher pulled Maria away. Joan cursed and lunged forward with her arms swinging. The teachers took Maria and Joan to the front office complex—Joan to my office and Maria to the counselor’s office.

Joan paced inside my office. She didn’t acknowledge my presence or look at me. She gasped and uttered curses against Maria. She clutched the front of her shirt and twisted it as she stepped back and forth. Her hair hung in disheveled and sweaty strands. 

“Why are you fighting?” 

She panted and paced and never stopped to answer my question. I returned to my report, hoping to wait out Joan’s anger. Fifteen minutes passed, and she still breathed hard but finally managed to stop, look at me, and sit down.

 “People have always told me what to do, who to be. My mother wants me to be more like my sister. My grandparents want me to act nice. This school wants me to obey the rules. Everyone wants me to be something. I’m sick of this.”

I wanted to express my sympathy to her, but I felt a warning voice inside. I remembered an incident that happened seven years before. I interviewed for a principal job at an alternative high school and walked into the building where the interview was scheduled to take place. I approached the principal’s office and heard the following:

 “You are here to graduate from high school, and all you have shown me is that you don’t care! You had better get yourself figured out! If you come in here again, I will suspend you! Now, get back to class and get to work!” 

A young man trudged out of the office, and the principal introduced herself to me. The principal, seeing the quizzical look on my face explained, “We owe these kids the truth. The truth of their situation, and the truth of their consequences.”

I suspended Joan for three days. After announcing her punishment, I told her, “You said you wanted to change, and you haven’t done anything to prove to me or the staff that you will change. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do to get to where we want to be.” 

She left my office with the same posture that I observed in the young man seven years before.

In April, a member of our staff approached my office door. Frowning and standing in the doorway, she said, “I am worried about Joan. She hasn’t been in class for a week.” 

Students missing school time often foreboded bad things. The year before, a student escaped probation, fled to another state, and spent the next two years in juvenile detention. Two months before that, a student quit attending school and eventually ended up in Las Vegas. She finished her education in jail. These experiences surged through my head as I picked up the phone to call Joan. She answered after six or seven rings with a slurred voice. 

“Where are you?”

“At a friend’s house.”

“Do your grandparents know you are there?”

“No.”

“Why aren’t you at school?”

“I don’t care anymore. It’s too hard.”

“What’s too hard?”

“School and everything. I don’t want to do this anymore.” 

“I thought you wanted to be different than your mother?”

Silence…silence… silence.

“I am calling your grandmother to come and get you.” 

I hung up the phone and called her grandmother. I explained that I needed to see Joan in my office the next day. As I hung up the phone, I settled back into my chair. My thoughts ping-ponged between fear and calm. I remembered so many other students who drifted into our school and then drifted out again. Their names and faces marched before my eyes. A smile tickled my mouth as I thought about those who changed their lives and walked proudly across the graduation stage to receive their diploma. For every one of those who walked across that stage, there was another who didn’t make it. At the end of five minutes, I assumed I would probably never see Joan again. Perhaps her promise of not wanting to be like her mother had a hollow ring to it. 

Joan trudged into my office the next morning in sweats and a tank top. She plopped down in an office chair; her eyes focused on the walls or ceiling. I just shook my head and launched into my normal lecture. I told her that if she wanted to graduate, if she wanted to stay out of trouble with the law, if she wanted to get her grandparents off her back, she needed to do what she promised to do. 

In alternative education, we have a familiar phrase: “You have to be bigger than your story.”

This means that you can excuse yourself for any behavior with your story. People will feel sympathy for you, and you can avoid taking responsibility for your bad actions. We continually remind our students to be bigger than their stories.

I flashed back to another student who had offered his story in my office. We had recently discovered a package of marijuana in his backpack. He explained to me, “I am not an addict. I just do drugs because I’m bored and there is nothing else to do in this town. Why do you guys always bug me? I don’t have a problem.” He repeated this story over and over again and then wasted the next year in a juvenile detention center due to his actions. 

I said to Joan, “You have to be bigger than the stories you have told me for almost a year. You can make excuses the rest of your life, but they are only excuses. You are the only one responsible for your future.” 

She sat up, looked into my eyes and surprised me. Instead of offering me an excuse, she talked. I listened for a half hour as she told me about her life and growing up. She told me about her desire to improve her life, to go on to college, to make something of herself. She talked about God and prayer, about reading the Bible and knowing that what she was doing was not what she wanted out of her life. 

As I listened, a familiar doubt rose in me. I had heard these words so many times before. These words were part of the story, the line of lies to escape punishment. I reflected back on other conversations with students. They each offered their own excuses in story form. Too many times, I had quit listening to these stories because I knew they were just stories. I tried to listen to Joan’s story, but in my heart, I doubted that this story would end well. I wanted to believe her, wanted to know that what she said was true, but doubts controlled. When Joan finished, I stated:

“Joan, the choice is yours. You can choose to continue to do what you do. You know where that will take you. None of the staff can make that decision for you. It is up to you to make the change in your life.” 

The words fell out of my mouth by instinct, but my heart was not in them. I felt Joan slipping away from her promises.

The rest of that year passed smoothly away. We started another school year. In November, Joan stood at my office door, head down. I noticed bruises on her wrists and a burn on her forearm. The English teacher had sent her, fearing she was being abused. 

“Where did you get the bruise?”

“I slammed my wrist in the door.”

“Where did you get the burn on your forearm?”

“I burned myself with a cigarette.”

I noticed some bruises around her neck as well and some additional bruises around her elbow.

“I don’t believe you. What really happened?”

The floodgates broke, and she tearfully explained that her current boyfriend had gotten drunk and became angry when he suspected she was dating another boy. He grabbed her, threw her down, and held her arm tight while he snubbed his cigarette into her forearm. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to take away her pain. I imagined my own 18-year-old daughter in this situation. The sympathy welled up inside, but my face remained passive. Sympathy couldn’t solve Joan’s problem. I could feel sorry for her, hug her, but the minute she stepped outside my office, I would no longer be able to help Joan. This realization of powerlessness settled on me. I could only do so much to help Joan. My sympathy would not help her change. I took the only course of action I had at my disposal and called our school resource officer. He conducted a thorough investigation and, with Joan’s help, put a restraining order in place against her boyfriend. I realized that his formal step couldn’t do anything to protect Joan. I almost pleaded as she left my office, “You have to change. You have to believe in yourself or this will continue to happen. You need to respect yourself because no one else will.”

Fast-forward to Joan’s graduation year. As I watched this now 19-year-old start her super-senior year, I secretly prayed that she had chosen to change. I remembered the fight of her sophomore year, the drug use in her junior year, and the boyfriend abuse of her senior year. Only one out of every four of our super-seniors would graduate. These students were officially adults, and many would choose to enter the workforce. 

In October of that year, Joan wandered into my office and sat down. She leaned back in her chair. I was working on a report for our School Board meeting and trying to listen at the same time. She talked, and I nodded or shook my head, occasionally adding an emphatic phrase, but I wasn’t listening. I eventually realized she wasn’t going away, so I put my report away, turned to her, made eye contact, and I actually listened. She fidgeted with her pen, chewed on it, sat forward and then back. 

“Is something wrong?” I asked. 

She continued to twist her pen lid, looking at the floor. Then, she raised her eyes, met mine, and once again began to talk.

She talked about how horrible her life had been up to this point. She told of past abuse, drug abuse, and neglect. She talked about reading the Bible and of turning to God. She wondered out loud about why this had to happen to her and about how she could be different when abuse is all she had known. In the slanting daylight of that afternoon, something changed within me as I listened to her. She became the Joan of the future. I saw her cradling a small girl on her lap, reading to her from a book. I saw her tucking that child into bed, kissing her on the forehead, and telling her how much she loved her. I saw a woman take the hand of her husband as they stood at the open doorway of their child’s bedroom and smiled at each other in the mounting twilight. I smiled along with them.

  For an hour, Joan talked, and I listened. When she rose and thanked me for listening, I stood there without an emotion. I should have hugged her, confirmed her fears, soothed her worries, but I couldn’t. As she walked out of my office, I sat down and reflected on the last hour.

 In that moment, I realized how much I actually loved Joan and the other students I worked with. I somehow knew that my worry about Joan, my half-hearted conversations had sunk in. I had always considered it my job to make sure these students “towed the line.” I didn’t realize that this honesty really masked the deep love that I held for them. This honesty often led to pain when they couldn’t break the cycle of their lives or joy when they did.

  I heard Joan’s words, but they weren’t the words of an already lived story. For one of the first times, Joan focused exclusively on the future. She talked about the changes she was ready to make, the plans she had. This transformation had taken almost three years, but the pain we had been through together evaporated in the joy of that moment. She talked about what she wanted in the future and expressed her desire to make that happen. When Joan left my office,  I sat back at my desk and wrote these words in my journal:

“Joan is ready to move forward with her life. I can see her being a successful mom, a successful wife, and a successful person in whatever she wants to do.”

Joan beat the odds and graduated that year. I had one final chance meeting with her on the day of her graduation. I happened to walk in as she sat in the computer lab working on an assignment. She sat against the far wall, resting on the windowsill with her feet curled under her. The light from the morning window highlighted her face. I approached her and asked if she had seen the computer aid. She said she no, and I turned to go, but before I could leave, I felt compelled to turn around and say, “Joan, I am proud of you. It took a long time for you to graduate, but you did it. I really wondered when you were fighting with Maria, when you used drugs, and when you didn’t show up for school. I had my doubts, but you’ve proved us all wrong.” 

The tears formed in her eyes and tracked down through her makeup, leaving black trails on her face. She sat there for a moment, tears dropping and her voice clogged by emotion. I felt my own tears rise, filling my eyes and trickling out of the corners. We were silent for a few minutes, and I turned to leave.

  “You have big dreams, and you need to live them. You are a wonderful young lady. You have a lot of potential—a lot of good to give to others. Don’t ever give up on yourself.”

Joan walked across the stage of graduation that night. She was a butterfly, emerging from a cocoon. The staff lined up to greet our graduates as they crossed the stage. As she passed, she hugged me like my own daughter would and said, “I love you. Thank you for everything.”

I could barely see through my tears to look deep into her eyes and say, “I love you, too.”

A year later, I left alternative education. But I still picture Joan striving to be different than her mother. I picture her cradling a young child on her lap, holding the child like she longed to be held. I picture her being the mother she never really knew, volunteering in classrooms, reading stories at night, and praying with her child. Within this wonder, however, is the overwhelming fear that she followed the pattern of her upbringing, began using drugs, gave up her budding belief in herself, or chose to live with a man who uses her body and doesn’t appreciate her mind. 

As I lay down at night, I sometimes see the faces of students I have taught. I wonder what they are doing, what they have become. I was once told that teaching is like spreading tree seeds. We spend an entire lifetime spreading the seeds but will never see the trees. Teachers work for the hope of the future. We labor each day, hoping that one student will learn, that one student will become a success. Teaching is a life-changing experience. How can words adequately describe the joy of seeing a student succeed or the sorrow of seeing one fail? How can we help others understand our importance? Each day in the future we come to the classroom and look into eager faces and give ourselves away. We give until there is nothing left to give and we change the world; one student at a time. §

Issue 06
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John Poole is a professor of English education at Brigham Young University-Idaho. For the past nine years, he has been a principal at an alternative high school. Previous to that, he taught English in both standard and alternative high schools.