Sunday, September 19, 2010

Timpanogos Hike

Last weekend, Joey and I hiked up to the top of Timpanogos. We started around10:00 pm or so on Friday night and didn't get back until around noon on Saturday. We slept for a few hours in the early morning in the permanent structure (not really a shack or a cabin) near the base of the mountain before climbing up to see the sunrise. It was a fairly grueling adventure but satisfying nonetheless.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

On Becoming a Teacher

During our graduate instructor training at BYU a few weeks ago, we were asked to respond to the writing prompt, "On becoming a teacher." So, here it is.

I got a head start on my career in elementary school. Merella and I filled our long summer days with school preparations. From Landon’s toy box we pilfered all the rectangular wooden blocks and turned them into desks for our Noah’s Ark hodgepodge of pupils—plastic cats and dogs from the “My Littlest Pet Shop” series, rubber ponies, porcelain horses and twin felt-covered zebras. When Dad brought home boxes of surplussed office supplies, we ransacked the stores for mini Post-it note pads and constructed books for each student. Merella made tiny art projects and U.S. maps out of squares of poster board to hang on the walls. I made little math work sheets with enumerations of times tables and 3-D models of the solar system out of Styrofoam beads and fine beading wire. We molded minuscule sandwiches and apples out of Sculpey clay, baked them in the oven, and painted them with layers of acrylic paint so each “kid” could eat lunch. Our students were impeccably well-behaved because their teachers believed in public humiliation as an effective form of classroom management. Anyone who misbehaved had to sit at the front of the room wearing a dunce cap made of construction paper.

When I grew out of this phase, I focused more on helping my dad get his real classroom at June Nelson Elementary School where he taught kindergarten. I put myself in charge of arranging the kitchen center and stacking books. I designed bulletin boards that inspired the envy of other teachers. The school of fish board was the best. On broad expanses of butcher paper from the teacher’s lounge I painted huge splashing waves. Jumping out of the waves were big cut-outs of orange fish—they looked like happy cartoon piranhas—with speech bubbles floating above their under bites that said “Welcome back to school!” Other teachers enlisted me to do their bulletin boards too. If I had had any sense, I could have turned it into a business.

By fifth grade, I felt I had my whole future planned. I would go to college and be a kindergarten teacher and my kids would bring me apples every day and I would live happily ever after with a yard full of cats. Then my teacher disrupted my simple paradigm of happiness. The class was asked to write essays about what we wanted to do with our lives. After she read mine, she made me stay after school. She said, “Sarita, do you realize you could be so much more than a teacher? You could be an artist or a brilliant heart surgeon! Don’t settle for teaching!”

Throughout this lecture on my poor choice of career, I thought, “Just because I did a report on the human heart in this class doesn’t mean I can be a surgeon. . .” and “After our impressionism unit in art and reading about all the starving artists who cut their ears off to send to old girlfriends, and who were disowned by their parents, I don’t want to paint landscapes with toothpicks and initiate a 20th century neo-pointalism revival for a living. But thank you for the advice.”

Nobody asked what I wanted to be when I grew up for a while after that. Until the summer before my senior year of high school. My family was visiting some friends we hadn’t seen since I was in elementary school. These family friends had both taught in elementary schools with my dad, and they had a son, whom I will call B— in case he turned out to be a blog stalker and discovers I still remember him. B-- was my age and was being groomed for Harvard medical school, which sounded so glamorous that I wanted to marry him right out of high school. During our visit, B—‘s dad asked me what my college plans were. “Not sure yet,” I said. I went through a phase where I wanted to be Miss Piggy’s costume designer. But in general, I didn’t know what I wanted. He looked me in the eye and said, “Sarita, if you become a teacher, I will never speak to you again.”

“Okay,” I said.
“You know what I always told B--?”
“I told him, son, you have to dream BIG. And now he’s going to be a doctor.”
“That’s great…” I said.

My parents were never worried about me. They guessed I’d figure it out someday. I have to admit that B--'s dad's comment made me want to reconsider. Why? I don't know. I should have ignored it. But it made me pay more attention to my teachers when I returned for senior year in the fall. I noted all the teachers who lost control of their classes or who might have stirred from their desks and let go of their coffee cups if the classroom had gone up in flames. I saw the flaws in teachers who assigned "read-the-chapter-silently-and-answer-the-questions-at-the-end-and-be-ready-for-a- test-on-chapters-1-10-tomorrow" assignments every week. I internally criticized the "teachers" who let us watch movies every Friday. It was uninspiring. My teaching ambitions were lost in the Ether.

I read A Farewell to Arms right around the time I thought about writing my college application essays. The nurse Catherine Barkley made nursing sound romantic. I began to like the idea of nursing, beyond the idea of Catherine Barkley. So I went through another phase. I wrote about nursing on all my college application essays.

I took chemistry 101 my first semester at BYU, since this class was a prerequisite for the nursing program. I hated it. I wanted to burn the textbook every day after class. And then I realized that this did not bode well for a prospective nurse, and that I really didn’t like needles and bed pans and hospitals anyway. So I switched to “open major.” The career aptitude tests I took at the BYU Student Services Center didn't help either. They all indicated that I demonstrated aptitude in wine tasting, the arts of the environmental standards technician (euphemism for garbage collector), and teaching.

“Teaching it is,” I thought. Eventually I did all the paperwork to change my major to English composite teaching mid-way through my sophomore year. English composite teaching supposedly prepared one to teach English using music, art, and history. Immediately after I had enrolled in the prerequisite courses, and had gone to class for several weeks, the major was discontinued. English teaching was the new backup plan.

I chose English teaching after sitting in my apartment, staring out at the rain drizzling the window panes, thinking in the voice of the armless cartoon character, “Homestar Runner” who breaks down one day and wails, “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life!” The rain outside reminded me of a rainy afternoon I had spent in the house, when I was in high school, curling up on the couch to read C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. My dad walked into the living room and found me annotating the pages furiously, saw the ragged edges of neon-colored sticky notes creeping out of the top of the book and said, “You want to be a high school English teacher, don’t you?”

Then I remembered how I never took any high school English classes. Instead I took writing classes from a local branch campus of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Some obscure world literature classes on the side. But I missed out on all the classics normal students at any other high school would have read. I decided to compensate for this gaping lacuna in my education by reading as many books as possible from the “College Bound Reading List" in the last two summers before high school graduation.

I spent summer afternoons with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the voluminous tomes of the British Victorian period that distinguish one in the masochistic reader's hall of fame —Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Wuthering Heights. I read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and For Whom the Bell Tolls during slow evening shifts of waitressing. When school started again, To Kill a Mockingbird and Animal Farm were some of my constant companions during the cross country running season when we flew to compete in all our meets. And in twelfth grade I propped my science textbook on my desk and pretended to be extrapolating the number of lichen bushes on the broad expanse of Kotzebue's tundra regions based on a 12 x 12 foot sample. Instead I was reading The Catcher in the Rye...

So there I was sitting in my apartment staring out the window, and wondering why I hadn’t started out as an English major in the first place. It made sense to major in English teaching. I loved education and reading, writing, and helping others. So I changed my major one last time and dreamed of being the woman version of John Keating in The Dead Poet’s Society--but without my students calling me "O Captain, my captain."

And then I got my first teaching job. Seventh Grade English. So not what I had envisioned. It was even better.


I have a folder in a filing cabinet at home. The folder has gotten a little fatter every year. It’s filled with thank-you notes from students. Some of the notes say, “Thanks for not giving us boring old grammar worksheets!” or “I never knew English could be fun,” or “You’re my favorite teacher because you never yell at us!” or “I come in your class and feel like my day is going to be okay.” Some of the notes are from straight A students who love English anyway. But the ones that surprise me are from the kids who sat through class all year, raising their hand only to ask if they could go to the bathroom in the middle of a lesson.

One of these thank you notes I will always remember. It was from a ninth grader at Lehi Junior High. He never talked in class. (The most I had heard him speak at one time was when he played the role of Juliet in his group’s red-neck rendition of the balcony scene.) Yet he managed to fill both the insides of a folded card and had more to say than I would have thought possible. I never considered graduate school until after I read his card, remembering how much I wished I could teach his class in high school, and how a master’s degree might have made me a more marketable candidate.

Middle school kids amaze me every year. I wouldn’t go back to age 13, or 14 or 15 for anything. So I often wonder why I continue to surround myself with this age group. I suppose it’s because I know that at their age, their job is to get through the day without doing anything embarrassing, and if they have a secret, everyone knows, and as Laurie Halse Anderson says in Speak, one of my favorite books, “It’s easier to floss with barbed wire than to admit you like someone in middle school.” I like middle school kids because in the midst of all the newfound glories of puberty and sitting through sex ed and the terror of showering after P.E. or being ostracized for wearing the wrong shoes, they still have the decency to say “thank you.”