Tuesday, June 7, 2016
Still a Teacher
Mondays before Poetry Club at the assisted living facility where I’m doing my practicum, I troll the facility’s restaurant to remind people interested in Poetry Club that we will meet soon. Last week, I stopped to talk with Kayla* when she called me to her table. She was early and sitting alone, so we talked for a while. Or I should say that she talked for a while. She’s a poetic philosopher and a talker.
Kayla’s white hair was pulled into a long white ponytail, as usual. I’d guess she’s in her sixties, younger than most of the residents, and I see her from time to time at Poetry Club. More often, we just talk in the restaurant or the lobby. (Or she does.) She has earnest, steel blue eyes and dresses more casually, than many of the residents. I can imagine her among my friend set, though I don’t know her well: I know she has cancer and an upbeat attitude; somewhere I heard that she once spent a year studying Dante’s Inferno. She is grateful for life and for beauty, a gratitude that she names every time I see her.
I wish I could remember everything she said last week, but this was a 20-minute monologue (poetic, philosophical, and full of gratitude, as I would expect.) I wasn’t taking notes. (I don’t usually take notes when I’m just talking with people. Do you?)
After her talk, I went to a quiet space and wrote down as much as I could remember:
“I want to thank you for last week’s poetry reading. You have a gift. You are able to guide us and redirect us, gently and gracefully, when we need it. When it’s going well, as when life is going well, the conversation is a stream: the water is smooth and we can rest in its depth; we can see our reflections on the surface. Sometimes, as with a river, there is agitation. The wind may come up. Or the darkness. And the water ripples or waves. Like in the dark times of our lives.
I’m going through one of those dark times with my cancer now, but if I can stay in this darkness I’ll come out with grace and gratitude. You know about that: you carry yourself that way. You and I are grateful that someone has saved our lives, and we live in grace. That’s the spirit in you and the spirit in poetry. As you know, I was an equestrian. Poetic lines are like when you and the horse are together in spirit as you go over a jump. It becomes not about what’s outside, but the grace moves deep in you.
And you have that in you. You are a graceful teacher. That’s a gift that you have, and I want you to know that.”
This week, I didn’t see Kayla, and I talked as I always do with Mariah*, who was sitting in her wheelchair facing the white church across the street. She loves that church. When she was younger, she was nun, but she left the sisterhood, married a priest, and they had two kids. Mariah looks out from expressive, large blue eyes that seem rounder than most people’s eyes. Her Alzheimer’s is advancing, and she tells me sometimes about the teams who come to her in the night, intending to kill her. Sometimes, she tells me or someone else that she and I are heading to the train station, going to Minnesota. These stories reinforce the times she tells me she’s ready to die, the times she tells me she feels trapped in this assisted living home. Don’t get the wrong idea and pity her, though. She’s tough. She can give as well as she can take. And she has a strong faith in God that sustains her in these tough times. I asked her once what she thought death was like. “It’s just more life,” she said. She’s not scared. She loves life, though she doesn’t love her current circumstances.
When I came up behind her yesterday, unaware that I was interrupting her meditation, she welcomed me, and she said, “I said a prayer today, and you came. You are the answer to my prayer. You are an angel….I think you are a woman of stature. You are rich and famous. I know because people want to sit by you.”
Isn’t that lovely? I hope it’s not because they pity me—I don’t think it is—but since my tumors, people tell me lovely things they think about me. Actually, I guess they did this before, but now I am slow enough to listen.
On the bus on my way to the assisted living center, a student who graduated from high school in 1995, had noticed me and come to the front of the bus to say hi. I’ve seen her a couple of other times since she graduated, and it’s always good to see her. She was a strong student, smart with a sturdy character, and though I don’t remember many details, I love remembering her spirit. Yesterday, she said to me, “You are still my favorite teacher ever.”
The comment means so much to me. I won’t be a high school teacher again, and I did my best when I was one. Sometimes I was the right teacher for a student and sometimes I wasn’t. I think often about the students I didn’t serve in the way I wanted to. It’s good to be reminded that sometimes I did serve students well. It’s good to hear the affection I felt mirrored back to me.
Now my official role is more often student than teacher, and some of my teachers tell me that they learn from me (as I learned from my students). I took a writing course from an excellent teacher, Theo Nestor, this year. At the end of the class, she told me that she had learned from me about teaching students with disabilities.
Earlier this year, she also told me that she appreciated the way that I ask for what I need: like power points and comments emailed to me so that I can enlarge the print on my screen. She said that she was learning to ask for what she needs. Hearing this meant a lot to me because I feel like every time I ask for an accommodation for my disabilities, I’m highlighting those disabilities again. I don’t mind people noticing my disabilities so much, but I’m sensitive to the fact that some people think I’m asking for more than I should, and I don’t want to be a bother, but I do want to be included and to learn. I also want to share what I have learned and what I live.
I may have left the teaching profession, but the identity still beats in my body: I am still a teacher. That just means I love to share some of the beauty that I’ve learned in this world. It means I want to empower people to make their own lives better. It means I love to listen to people’s stories and to share mine. It means I love to love, and I love to be loved.
*Residents’ names have been changed.