9/11 and My Seventh Graders

Today I teach children born in late 2000 or 2001. They have never known a world without the United States at war in the Middle East. Bin Ladin was as real (and frightening) as Voldemort from their childhood storybooks. And they are profoundly affected by their passive connection to this day’s events simply by being born in the year of 9/11. It shows in their conversation and in their writing. From this generation on, 9/11 is a dusty bit of history, as remote as Pearl Harbor.

We did not dwell on 9/11 today. I left their families to approach the historic day, or not. They carry a burden, no matter how young they were on that day. It breaks my heart to read their first writing assignments: a self introduction. Many of them begin, “I was born the year the twin towers fell.” They don’t understand that day, but they have absorbed its haunting, lingering fear. The media images play like cinema footage, equally real and unreal.

I hope for the day when they can say, without fear, “I was born the year the twin towers fell, and I am here to change the world for the better.”

Public Property

It was my first year in the classroom and for some reason, my room was also the location for after school care. Nearly ten minutes after the last student headed for the parking lot, I found myself inundated with over thirty children across grade levels and with politics of their own. It bothered me that I had no time at the end of the day to settle my thoughts or set up my classroom for the following day. I’d always come back the next morning and find crackers crushed on the floor or cups of juice among the books in my classroom library. Desks would be crammed to one side or the other. Student work could never be left out. My supplies were taken from my desk and lost or damaged.

It was frustrating to be a new teacher in a space like that.

When I mentioned to a colleague that I felt crowded out of “my room” she looked at me sharply and said, “It’s not your room; it belongs to the school. You’re just given permission to teach in it.” I let that sink in. It stung to be put so sharply in my place, and it altered the way I saw myself as a professional.

Since then, I always feel a bit homeless. No matter where I teach, my classroom never feels like my own space. I’m just visiting–even five years or more down the road. I get it. I’m an employee. This is my “office.” It is no more mine than my husband’s desk and cubicle are his. Still, the mental image of myself as a mendicant or itinerant won’t quite leave. My classroom, the materials provided (such as they are), are public property–as public as a courthouse or DMV.

At the same time, it’s striking how often my status as a teacher also seems to be a slice of public property to be traded, ranked, or used as someone else sees fit. It’s not that I mind being an employee or that I don’t think I should be managed. It’s deeper than that. It’s the sense that who I am as a person is less than who I am as a piece of public property.

The real issue is that I feel dehumanized.

It’s hard to function in a political climate that insists I am a commodity whose value is variable. It’s even harder to function when personal stresses, griefs, and pain have to be pushed aside. Being a public figure in this way means that I have to sacrifice my private self until the school doors close.

I remember when I was a child in middle school, I judged my teachers harshly when they failed to live up to my childish expectations. I heard my parents make judgments, too. Now that I have spent a good portion of this school year hiding private wounds and crying lonely tears, I wonder what personal burdens my teachers were carrying that they too could not share.