Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Year of Living Dangerously

It’s now been six weeks since my year as Isabel’s teacher ended with her graduation from Cold Spring School.  The graduation ceremony itself was a lot of fun.  The students decided to perform a series of skits based on their years at the school.  This year’s group had twenty students and they all took part in the brainstorming, writing, editing, and sharpening of each skit.  As you can imagine, it was quite an involved process.  I am not a big fan of group writing endeavors, since they are very hard work and often the final product sounds like it was written by a committee.  In this case, however, the final scripts were far more focused and funnier than the early drafts and the improvement was due to the input of everyone.  It was great for me to see the process play itself out with such entertaining results.

            It was also great for me to see Isabel’s role in the whole process.  She had some valuable ideas that really worked, and she also had other ideas that needed to be cut.  She handled both situations with grace and aplomb.  And because I was her teacher, I got to see firsthand how it all played out.  I saw the give and take in the group as people took the risk to put their ideas out and have their peers pronounce judgment on them.  I got to see what very few parents ever get to see—I watched my own daughter just be herself in the classroom and on the playground and on field trips.  In the end, it feels like I got a huge gift this year.

In addition to the unusual circumstance of having me as her teacher, Isabel also suffered through the fact that Erica was in Ithaca and San Diego for big chunks of the school year.  Not only was I Isabel’s teacher, I was also her single parent.  There were days when we spent every waking minute together.  The poor child.  I would not wish that on anyone.  I have already told her this in private, but I want to thank her out loud and in public for making this past school year go as well as it possibly could.  This could have been a very hard year and instead it was a pleasure.

I am a firm believer that we are all born with a temperament that is at the root of who we are our whole lives.  Our basic orientation to the world does not change.  What does change is the expression of that temperament.  We are creatures of context.  For as many discrete groups of people there are whose opinions we care about, we have that many different expressions of our personality.  We are not the same with our co-workers as we are with our siblings.  We act differently alone on the subway than we do in the car with a spouse.  And we are different with our friends than we are with our parents.

More times than I can count I have told parents about the behavior of their child in my class and they have said something like, “Wow. She is nothing like that at home.”  Nine times out of ten, the school behavior is more in keeping with what they hope their child will be like.  Especially with twelve-year olds, how a kid behaves at home is the worst of all their many expressions.  Generally, this is healthy.  It means home is where they feel most secure and they can let out the nastiness that they know would be out of bounds in the rest of the world.  Many researchers and teachers refer to 12-, 13-, and 14-year olds and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde for this very reason.

Another benefit of the year was that Isabel got to see me doing my job.  I never got to see my father at work.  He sold insurance and worked in an office and it would not have been practical, nor would it ever have crossed his mind to bring me to work with him.  I really like teaching and over the years I have gotten to the point where I am not awful at it.  There were times this year when I certainly forgot my daughter was in the class.  She became just one more student in the group.  And just as she has a school personality that differs from her home personality, I have a work personality that is not the same as my home personality.  I can’t help but believe that it was good for Isabel to see me doing my job and truly liking it. 

What I got this year was access to the Isabel I would not have ever seen otherwise.  She was still recognizably herself, but she was different, too.  The Isabel I saw in school was more helpful, more conscientious, more empathetic, more outspoken, more of a leader, and a little bit more of a troublemaker than the Isabel I see in other realms.  There were times during the year when Isabel simply forgot her father was in the room.  I was instead her teacher.  And from this new position I was both farther away and closer.  Farther away, because Isabel wasn’t saying to herself “What do I want my parents to see of me?” and closer, because Isabel wasn’t asking herself “What do I want my parents to see of me?”  She was “unfiltered” in a way, or at least “differently filtered.”  The Isabel I got to see was the one she brings out into the world when she is away from me and Erica.  For this and many other reasons, this was my best teaching year yet.

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