impact: from fireworks to fire works

we have an impact when we quit trying to make an impact

     Many of the teachers I know seem really focused on summer plans.  They bust out calendars and cross out big X's in red marker.  I can't blame them entirely.  Teachers are tired, kids are anxious we're in the beginning of another blazingly hot summer.  We're tired, every one of us. I can't even muster a simple, “hey guys” or stern look when kids spray water at one another.
     Despite all of this, I always feel the need to finish hard.  I pack the end of the year with more service projects, a documentary and a major art project.  I teach my favorite, most practical unit and I don't show videos. This is the time for guest speakers and debates and a “mocumentary” on how the economic downturn has hurt the sock puppet population.
     I realize I might sound a little self-righteous, but it's my method of survival.  Weeks go by faster when I'm passionate about a project. I could be wrong, but it seems that students are less apathetic.  It's not that students are tired of learning at the end of the year.  It's that they're tired of school. So, I turn my class into a counter-school project and I finish with a smile.
     I suspect it's something else, though. It's an act of penance for all the times I checked e-mail during Bell Work or I pretended to listen to a long, meandering story from a student who wanted to visit while I was out on duty. It's make-up time for the instances when I promised a service project and then gave up when I hit a wall of bureaucracy or the days I spent my prep period taking off to QT for forty-four ounces of artificial happiness.
     Even when I attempt to finish hard, I always have a nagging sense of guilt.  It's strange, I know.  I believe in grace.  I wasn't raised around angry nuns who shamed me and hit me with rulers.  I don't think I have a Freedom Writers styled hero complex, either. I get it. It's not my job to save the world.    
     Still, in the middle of May, I always feel that I should have done more.  I should have given better feedback on work. I see some students and think, "I hardly know you," and I shudder at the thought that some are slipping through unnoticed and unknown. It's a dangerous place for me to dwell. If I believe my job is to make a difference, I will end up in arrogance or despair. I'll either view myself as Atlas, holding up a broken world with my duct-tape solutions or I'll slip into Sisiphus rolling back an enormous rock, growing depressed with the cavern I've dug for myself below. I'll decide to give up when I see a backpack full of toast and I'll consider walking away from the crowded theater or the dark cave.
*     *     *
     So, it's one of those prep periods where Javi and I both need to get away from the reality of flickering florescent lights and word walls and binders. We drive to the convenience stores for the artificial happiness. In the parking lot, a man yells out, “Mr. Spencer.”
     “You don't remember me, do you?” he asks.
     “I'm sorry, I don't.”
     “I was this big when I was in your class,” he adds, holding his hand down low.
     “I graduated. Remember when you said you thought I could do it? You wrote that note to each kid at the end of the year. I kept that . . .” his voice trails off and he gets nervous. It's an awkward moment in a convenience store parking lot and I don't make it any easier with my silence.
     “Hey, remember the time you did the career philosophies? I remember that I had wanted a job that would make a lot of money, but you mentioned the vocational idea of a job that would fit my beliefs and personality.”
     “So what job are you thinking you want to do in the future?”
      “I remember you said that you'd be sad if your students lived meaningless lives as accountants.” It's true. I once knew an accountant who said some jobs are dangerous because they can take one's body, but accounting was a job that can take one's soul.  It was a joke, but he took it seriously.         
    “I vaguely remember that,” I add.
    “Well, I want to be an accountant. I think it's really meaningful. It's creative. I can solve problems, real problems that aren't just ideas. Plus, it's the right kind of career for a guy like me.”
     “I'm sorry I insulted your future career,” I add.
     “No, don't be sorry. You made a difference. I never would have done service projects if it weren't for your class. I still volunteer each week in the food bank.”
     As we drive off, Javi reminds me that it's a rare moment. Most stories are left incomplete. I never know if I made a difference. I never know whose feelings I hurt or who I encouraged. It's a blurry picture. I made a difference in an unexpected way. I simply tried to teach him. My desire wasn't to change his life, but to serve him. Yet, when I abandoned the notion of having an impact, I made a difference.
*     *     *
     I think of that moment when I meet with Brad after his first semester teaching Family and Consumer Sciences.
     “John, I get letters from students thanking me for lessons I taught.”
     “Was your goal to make a difference?”
     “I guess I wanted to make a difference, but I knew that I was dealing with people. They aren't Play-Dough for me to mold. They are humans and we cannot control what they will do with how I teach. The best I can do is be faithful and serve and the mysterious part is that I occasionally make a difference in the process.”
     “John, some of the kids in my class fell asleep. Heads on the table, eyes closed, out. Some listened. Do you think I had total control of that? There's a freedom when you realize that you can't change people, but simply being there can help them change. It's confusing and messy.”
     “So what is your goal then?”
     “If students begin to ask themselves 'why' because they were in my class, I'd be satisfied.”
     Doyle mentions setting bugs inside of jars for students to observe. His goals are humble. If just one of them picks up a rock on the way home from school and observes a little critter, he's made a difference. He's not out to create scholarly scientists and develop the future in technological innovation. He simply wants students to observe their world.
     But here's the rub: he'll never know. He can't measure if he's made a difference. Sure, a few students might come back and tell him that they fell in love with science when they sat in his class, but many more won't. It's a crap-shoot.

*     *     *
     I'm lousy at trying to start a fire.  Blame it on my suburban upbringing or my lack of tactile learning or the fact that I never joined Boy Scouts. I begin too big, with large logs and lots of smoke.  Sometimes I cheat by trying to douse the wood with lighter fluid.  Christy, however, seems to have a method.  It begins with smaller wood, some starter sticks and a little flame.  After awhile, the fire grows until, without realizing it, we have something warm and powerful and capable of turning an ordinary marshmallow into something magical.  I'm not exactly sure how fire works, but it seems to be the opposite approach to fireworks.
      Fireworks are more entertaining - huge explosive displays of color, ear-splitting booms, the murmuring of "oohs" and "ahhs."  I realize they are technical and scientific, but to the person using fireworks at home, they are simple compared to starting a fire.  Light a fuse and watch the explosion.
     In sitting in front of a fire in an Autumn evening, my mind meanders to teacher movies.  They seem to glorify the firework approach to teacher.  The character, a Lone Ranger prototype, ascends to the furthest reaches of the sky and passionately explodes with huge results.  They're loud and colorful and entertaining. Yet, like fireworks, the teachers only last a few years.  Whether it's Stand and Deliver or Freedom Writers, each career takes the firework approach of amazing results followed by a burn-out from the profession.
     I can't blame Hollywood.  Watching the dedicated veteran teachers grade a stack of papers wouldn't be much of a box office draw.  However, I want to be a teacher with a working fire - with a steady passion that lasts a career.  Instead of a loud, thundering message and a flashy display of lights, I want to be a steady fire that can maintain a small community and provide a platform for dialogue.  The best campfires do not provide attention to themselves, but serve as a place of warmth where others can grow close together. It's a slow impact and on tough days it it's completely thankless. A firework show might be more entertaining, but a long campfire is more memorable if, for no other reason, it's more authentic.

*     *     *
In my first year of teaching I develop a plan to “create civic-minded community leaders.” (For what it's worth, I already cringe at the word “create” here.) As a result, I demand that every child completes four hours of community service per quarter. Just for a little extra proof, I glance at the bar graphs and smile at the difference I am able to make. “I want the community to know that my generation isn't selfish,” one boy wrote.
     So it's the end of the third quarter of that first year and I overhear a student ask about the reflections. “Make sure to put something about how life-changing service is. He digs that kind-of mushy stuff. Say it made you less selfish and it's changed you forever.”
     The other student says, “That's a good idea. I think he wants to turn us all into Cesar Chavez or something. Can't we just be normal kids?”
      My first response is anger. How dare they resent the service project? After all, I've worked really hard planning weekend projects? I thought of it as a social contract instead of a crap-shoot. I had expected my students to take on a paradigm of slow and subtle service and yet I had modeled fireworks. I had pushed hard to change them and they pushed back with the desire for normalcy.
*     *     *
     I have a boy in my fourth hour who is pulling an A, but is failing all his other classes.  He drew about half of the icons on our Social Voice blog. When he first arrived in my class, I asked him about his sketch book and he said he would enjoy doing a few drawings for our website.
     His globalization collage is amazing, but his description is even better, "We smashed the world into pieces, leaving shards of culture and humanity and politics.  To make money, we chopped it like an onion and made our own global pico de gallo.  It was tasty at first, but now we're realizing that we're not whole."
     I didn't shape him into a little social justice artist.  Instead, I allowed that part to move to the surface.  I engaged him in conversations about life and when he realized I wasn't trying to convert him into my philosophy, he allowed me to speak some truth into his life. Slowly, he started attending service projects. However, if I had mandated it from the beginning, he would have done so grudgingly or simply checked out in apathy.
     I would love to claim his story as a success, but I have completely lost touch with him. Ultimately, that's the humbling part. It's the scary reality that I may or may not have made a difference and I'll never really know. It's a crap-shoot.

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