A Dream and A Disappointment: Sometimes Everything You Can Do Is Not Enough

December 15, 2009

When I taught high school I asked students in my senior English classes what they would focus on if they were the teacher. It was their last chance to provide input on their free education and have an opportunity to learn something they wanted before graduation. Their choices were revelatory. Some students confessed to never reading an assigned book and wrote lists of books they thought should they should read. Many students were confused about nouns and verbs and pronouns and semicolons and when to use who or whom. Others wanted to do more creative writing or write more poetry. But it was Elecia Gallegos, a student in 1994, who wrote something I still carry with me:

If I were the teacher this year, I would teach about dreams, about how to deal with disappointments. I would tell the class my life story (just what I felt like sharing), and I would ask each of them to tell theirs.

For today, a dream, a disappointment, a bit of my life story. My dream and my disappointment are both about school. I dream that school could be different—more personal, more focused on individual hopes and aspirations—and I am disappointed that this is generally not the systemic reality. I also understand the limitations of systems that serve large numbers of people and I know that in the end, it is only me who can make a difference in my own teaching and learning world. And even in that limited world, I find it impossible to truly individualize, even for myself. I am often disappointed by my inability to do so, yet I must also take care that I do not sacrifice myself on the altar of other people’s expectations as a teacher or as a learner. This awareness is particularly wrenching for a teacher educator. I want my students to survive to teach another day and that means sharing hard truths with them.

The bit of life story is about my most discouraging teaching day: Before school started, one of my students came to tell me that he was dropping out. At lunchtime, two more students came in and said that it was their last day. I was lead teacher in a dropout prevention program and I was losing three students in one day. When they left the room, I locked the door and cried. I wondered what I was doing. I thought about quitting. I walked around the room, obsessively cleaning up, trying to control my racing thoughts. One of the tables was littered with scraps of magazines from a morning art project and I noticed a line of type: Some Floors Will Squeak No Matter What Walks Across Them.

I was comforted by these words. I knew that I had tried every strategy I could think of to keep my students in school. I had individualized. I had listened. I had done all I could to accommodate their needs. But I could not control their lives outside of school. I also knew that sometimes, no matter what a teacher does, she—or he—is not the teacher for that student at that moment, that the floor will squeak regardless of how careful the walker is. I remember these words fifteen years later and share them with my students. Sometimes everything you can do is not enough.

What are your dreams, your disappointments, your life stories, and what do they mean?

My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life, I think I would not tell it; for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like a heavy snow?
• Black Elk


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