Through the filtered lens of my classroom, I have lived through terror before. Fourteen years ago to the day, as a beginning teacher in suburban St. Louis, I watched the dark horror of Columbine snake through the classroom T.V. I can still easily conjure the slithering shock we all felt when the Towers fell. My father, a commercial airline pilot, was flying that day and the dread I felt during the few hours it took to learn that he was O.K. will always be with me in some way. Without any real effort, I can play, on a mental loop, my colleagues’ dumbfounded reactions when their former neighborhoods in London and Mumbai were attacked.
This week has been different. The bombs at the Boston Marathon exploded only two miles from my doorstep. My neighbors and I spent yesterday “sheltering in place” as authorities searched for one of the suspects. Thankfully, nobody in my immediate community was injured in the attacks, but, of course, all Bostonians are affected.
This morning I woke up thinking about those who died: Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, Martin Richard, and Sean Collier. I prayed for all those who have lost limbs, for those who must carry the mental and physical trauma of these events. I mourn for those families who must bear the tragedy of these surreal days in more immediate and lasting ways. I suppose my reactions are not any different than millions of others.
As a teacher, however, I cannot help but process this senselessness by considering how it will shape my interactions with my students. Inevitably, when people meet me and learn that I teach, I get some sort of comic empathy…something along the lines of, “Oh, man! I could never do what you do. You must be so worn down.” I always politely respond with something like, “Actually, I really love my job. Being around optimistic young people every day fills me up. I’m really thankful that my life’s work is not about making money. It’s hard work but it’s rewarding.” Yet, that reaction is sometimes a lie. I do get worn down.
It seems every year, at some point, I go through a crisis of faith. I reach a point of mental exhaustion where I question whether my efforts are worth it. I cannot dull my brain against mountains of mediocre essays without being affected. No matter what I try, grading is so damned tedious and time consuming. It steals some of my spirit.
This month, I was already grappling with this self doubt. I felt discouraged. I felt guilty about not finding enough time for my personal writing. I wondered if I really could do much to change my students, mold them into better readers, writers, and thinkers.
Monday’s attack exacerbated this mood. I spent this past week wondering if any of my work really matters.
This morning, however, I feel differently. I feel ashamed of my discouragement. My life is beautiful and wondrous and blessed. Any time I spend not celebrating and cherishing the moments I am given, I am just being selfish and petty and dumb.
President Obama’s words always move me. His recent speech at a memorial for the Boston Marathon bombing victims was perhaps his most evocative to date. In the speech he alludes to an E.B. White poem where Boston is described as “. . . not a place . . . but . . . a state of grace.”
This description reminds me that at my worst, I see teaching as a chore. At my best, I know it to be a state of grace. I must be joyful because I get the chance, every day, to do my small part to fill the world with more love and empathy and art.
Of course, these tragic events are not about me. Part of me feels cheap linking my own mental state with these events. I know I am unscathed, and I admit that I do not fully comprehend the horror and loss that has occurred. I will, however, let these days change me.
I am resolved to approach my teaching renewed. My students and colleagues probably won’t notice a difference. I always enter the classroom with a well crafted veneer of professionalism and enthusiasm.
There have been too many times, though, when my heart wasn’t there. Having our hearts broken, however, can remind us why they are there in the first place.
President Obama was not talking about teaching when he said these words, but he was expressing why we must continue to live our daily lives with purpose and faith. Since teaching is such a vital part of my life, it makes since that my thoughts turn to my classroom and my students when I read these words:
“Even when our heart aches, we summon the strength that maybe we didn’t even know we had, and we carry on; we finish the race. We finish the race, and we do that because of who we are, and we do that because we know that somewhere around the bend, a stranger has a cup of water. Around the bend, somebody’s there to boost our spirits. On that toughest mile, just when we think that we’ve hit a wall, someone will be there to cheer us on and pick us up if we fall. We know that.
And that’s what the perpetrators of such senseless violence, these small, stunted individuals who would destroy instead of build and think somehow that makes them important – that’s what they don’t understand.
“Our faith in each other, our love for each other, our love for country, our common creed that cuts across whatever superficial differences there may be, that is our power. That’s our strength. That’s why a bomb can’t beat us. That’s why we don’t hunker down. That’s why we don’t cower in fear.
“We carry on. We race. We strive.”
I will not attempt to make sense of these senseless acts, but I can carry with me the spirit of fraternity that, along with the fear, has been palpable in these past days. I can add to my community by understanding that teaching is my marathon. Each day of this work can be a quiet, persistent act that honors our power to put one foot in front of the other.