Love and Limits

"Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking."--Mary Poppins, moments before, her work with the Banks family complete, she takes flight, never to see them again.

There's a poignant rightness to that scene, something I recognized from an early age. I've seen Disney's Mary Poppins more times than I can count; I may even have seen it when it was first released in 1964, though since I was three, I don't have any memory of it. There's plenty of meat here for both children and adults: magic that turns chores into play, adventures on rooftops and inside a chalk painting, lessons in the relative worth of money, work, and family, how to recognize a horrible Cockney accent, catchy songs and invigorating dance routines, and on and on it goes. Almost all of it can be brushed away as a feel-good fantasy about a magical visitor helping a broken family come together, with the requisite happy ending one expects from a Disney movie--almost all of it. For there is one aspect of this movie that rung true to me the first time I actually remember seeing it (I was probably six or seven), and which has been in my thoughts all week: that final moment when, as the Banks family runs off to the park, reunited, to fly a kite and discover that Mr. Banks has been not just reinstated, but promoted, Mary Poppins hangs back, has a brief argument with her umbrella handle, and flies away.

I don't consider myself perfect, or even practically perfect, but in that line about sentiment and muddled thinking contains one of the most important truths about teaching: we who choose this vocation are in the business of changing the lives of children for the better. This has to be done with love, for they are, after all, children, and to allow any other emotion to motivate this work would be to enter the realm of exploitation. So we must love our students. But here's the thing: as much as we love them, we must not become attached to them. They will become attached to us--they are, as I will keep reminding you, children--but we must hold our own attachment in check. We must not permit sentiment--by which I mean motives unbecoming of an educational professional--to muddle our thinking.

Mary Poppins models this from the moment of her arrival at the Banks household. She is strictly business, taking charge of both the children and their parents, effortlessly transitioning them into the first of many lessons. As firm as she is in enforcing her expectations, she is also warm and compassionate, and, fully cognizant of the requirements of working with children, injects fun and adventure into everything she does with them. One of her lessons, though, is boundaries, and so she keeps her day off sacrosanct, sending the children to work with their father. And when it's all over, when the lessons have been learned and the family is reunited, and they head off together to fly a kite without so much as a thank you, she takes it completely in stride. She feels a pang of regret--as her umbrella handle points out, just before she clamps its beak shut and flies away--but she refuses to let that interfere with the truth that her work is done, and it is time for her to move on to the next family in need of her healing magic.

I have been teaching since 2002. Since then, I have had thousands of students in my classes. Many I found delightful, some obnoxious; most fell somewhere between  those extremes. I taught with love, and occasionally felt it coming back from students, though never as much as I did at Margaret Scott. At the conclusion of every year, I said goodbye to many of those students, knowing I would not be seeing them again. Some were gone from me as they were promoted to the next level of education. Some would move away over the summer. And in some cases, I was leaving that school, usually for another position, but in one case, due to a budgetary layoff.

One cannot work with children and say as many goodbyes as I have said without having some sense of professional boundaries. If I did not guard my heart against sentimental attachment, I would be crippled by grief for all the children who were briefly under my tutelage, but whom I will not be seeing again.

Wednesday was my last day at Margaret Scott. Many of my classes were in obnoxious mode, restless, unfocused, sensing that something was about to change, unsure what it would be. For my part, I told every class I saw this week that it was their last time for music until next February (I'll be at Hartley School for a full year to minimize the number of moves). Every class had a few children celebrating the end of music and the beginning of PE; to every one of those expressions, I asked, "And how do you think that makes me feel?" But it really wasn't a surprise to me--I know there were a few children in every class who would much rather be playing games far more physical than even the most active of music games can be--and I could tell the overwhelming majority were sorry to see me go. Most classes offered up a loud "thank you" chorus as their home room teachers took charge of them, and many were slowed by spontaneous hug-fests. I felt well and truly appreciated, and was touched by all these displays of affection.

The moment that most reached me, though, came at the beginning of the day, as I was doing my outdoor duty, monitoring arrivals. A fifth grade girl named Mayrin, who has brightened every morning for me with her sparkling smile, handed me a gift bag. In it, I found a handwritten note and a scallop shell that had been taped shut. Inside was a guitar pick. Mayrin was in the choir, and she had seen me go through half a dozen of the flimsy picks I was using. This pick looked used, but it was thicker, more durable, and I used it to play for the last choir rehearsal at lunchtime. Mayrin was paying attention, and knew exactly what to give me: something I could use, wrapped up in something she had made herself.

I won't see Mayrin again, or any of the other fifth graders who either blessed or cursed my time at Scott. They'll be in middle school by the time I come back a year from now. Every child I am reintroduced to will be a year older. And many will be gone: the Reynolds district serves a mobile population. Wednesday I handed all those children on to the PE teacher who takes my place in the gymnasium. And tomorrow I start meeting hundreds of new students who will love me, tolerate me, or despise me because I am teaching them music (rather than PE) in the Hartley gymnasium. I'll teach them for four months and a couple of weeks, then pass them back to their parents, never to see many of them again.

That's as it should be. I work with love and boundaries. That makes me practically perfect--practically because I am always placing limits on how I express that love, and how I permit it to affect me. I can never let it muddle my thinking--to do so would be to fall down on the job, incapacitate me from the tough choices I must make--but I can't keep it from touching me; and that touch is what makes this work, as poignant as it can be, so rewarding as well.

Thank you, Mary Poppins, for helping me keep it real.


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