Monday, May 30, 2011

Farewell, Teaching (For Now)—Or, Back to the Writing Life

Welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing.

William Shakespeare

Five years ago, after a twenty-seven year absence, I returned to the high school classroom. Although this is where I started my teaching career, I’d be dishonest if I said that this is where I planned to be in my 50s. After teaching in universities most of my adult life—including earning tenure—to become a high school teacher once more seemed, in the minds of my former colleagues, and sometimes in my own, a monumental demotion: a plunge into murky waters in which I never dreamed to tread again, at least not willingly.

But there were two factors that tipped the scales—and decidedly—toward accepting this challenge: one, my wife and I wanted to remain in Central America, where we had been living contentedly for six years—three in Nicaragua and Panama each—and, two, she had been working at Balboa Academy, in Panama City, and she absolutely loved the school. Trusting her judgment that Balboa was a good place to work, I gladly accepted their job offer.

In spite being in a supportive work environment, I confess that there were many times when I questioned the sanity of this decision during my first semester back among high-schoolers. Only weeks into the experience, I’d wake up most mornings ready to concede defeat. My past among respectful university audiences had begun to feel like a dream, a wonderful fantasy, something that had never happened. Instead, I was faced with students who demanded that I keep them challenged, constantly, as well as entertained.

Those first four months—from August to November—nearly cured me of my desire to remain in Panama. More distressingly, I started to believe that I would never succeed in a high school classroom.

Fortunately, a close friend intervened, offering wise counsel that I was smart enough to follow: “Start every morning by saying: ‘Today I am going to make a difference.’” I started to repeat the phrase while showering, and before long the mantra became a mindset. What’s more, the proud educator in me became increasingly stubborn—and as a result more ingenious—about finding ways to entice my young, energetic audience to collaborate in creating effective lessons.

Happily, soon into the second semester my time in the classroom started to become rewarding (and I am delighted to report that it has remained so throughout). What’s more, I’m now certain that I’ve made a difference in the lives—and studies—of many students. But more importantly, they have made a difference in mine, teaching me that I have to be at my best every hour of every day—for at that age they instantly see through false pretenses on the part of adults.

Working at Balboa Academy has been, as my wife had assured me years ago, a beautiful, life-affirming episode. And today, as I stand on the threshold of withdrawing from full-time teaching, I do so with sadness. I know that, as a writer, I’ll be able to touch the heart of an occasional reader. But it has been as a teacher, particularly at the high school level, that I have seen the difference I can make on a daily basis. It’s been here, in Balboa Academy’s high school, that I’ve seen ninth-graders—my favorite age group—set off on the path toward becoming productive and caring young adults.

Yet, alas, the challenge of writing more books—and articles—is too strong of a siren’s call for me to ignore. Thus, once again my life takes another questionable turn. And whereas my years as a high school teacher turned out to be vastly gratifying, I now pray that my choice to face a blank screen every morning is graced with comparable results.