Thursday, November 20, 2008

Carrots and Jelly

I don’t have time to write. I don’t have time to read. I only have time to consider educational theory and practice, comprise my thoughts in lengthy papers conforming to rigid specifications, and edit those papers within an inch of their lives.

I feel bad for educators getting their masters degrees who don’t teach paper-writing for a living. That would make this whole process even more tedious and frustrating….and I’m pretty frustrated.

There is something very fulfilling about working with things in tangible ways. This might be the most frustrating thing about working on masters papers about education—everything is theoretical. The classroom, the school, the problems: all in theory. The students have no faces. They have fabricated names. They have no families, no quirks, no histories. They don’t smile; they don’t cry. They don’t look you in the eye when you ask a hard question, acknowledge that it hits deep, and then pass on answering. They don’t clumsily read seventeenth century love poetry aloud. They don’t ask questions about instructions already written on the board. They don’t worry about grades that will make them ineligible. They aren’t affected by large portions of brownies and ice cream at lunch. They don’t make distracting bodily noises. They don’t have dreams.

Sometimes, even with the reality that comes with working with students day in and day out, I crave measurable work. I desire progress I can see, learning I can calculate, meaningful change that will last.

As a school project this year an initiative was started where each middle and high school student does two hours of community service a month. Teams of nine students and one teacher were assembled and sent to designated locations to serve those with needs. I went this week, and alongside the students I bagged donated food for two hours. We counted jelly packets into Ziploc bags. We bagged chocolate milks and individual canisters of maple syrup. We also bagged 500 pounds of carrots. These weren’t your average sized carrots either, some of them were the size of raw yams, like miniature clubs or bats—and there were plenty of playful violent gestures in the midst of the bagging.

Some of the students made games to pass the time, some of them competed with one another. When it was done, most of them agreed that they’d much rather bag food than be in class. I didn’t vocalize my agreement, but I was intrigued by how much more immediate the fulfillment of tangible work is. I helped bag 500 pounds of carrots for the poor and homeless of Canton. I was one of 20-some people contributing to the work of this organization that morning, and there was an air of peace that was alluring. We were doing good work. We were helping those in need in tangible ways. It was intoxicating.

I know my work as a teacher is important. I know this in my head, but I still have to remind myself of it regularly. It doesn’t feel important what you get blank stares to thought provoking questions. It doesn’t feel worthwhile when I feel more like the disciplinarian than instructor of unruly middle schoolers who clearly have no disciplinary expectations of them when they are home.

Thankfully, there is always a glimmer of hope. Just when I am sure I am no use to anyone I get a note or a bit of affirmation that reminds me that it’s not my job to judge things based on what I can see. The people coming to collect their carrots and jelly will not see who bagged them anymore than they will see the farmer that donated them, but that does not mean these people don’t exist. It is not my job to measure my worth by tangible outcomes; it is only my job to be faithful in what I have been called to do.

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