Sunday, June 12, 2016

Exhale

Starting in September, I'll be teaching here.

I felt it Monday morning when I woke up: a slight increase in the gravitational field holding me to my bed, coupled with a tightness in my throat. The pull of the bed I put down to still recovering from a bad fall I'd had Friday while out on a run, the throat scratchiness to the flurry of floral procreation going on throughout the Willamette Valley. Bruises, allergies--yeah, that's what's up. I shaved, showered, had breakfast, packed my lunch, kissed Amy, and headed off to my last full week of school.

Five hours later, the teaching portion of my day complete, I stepped into the cafeteria to do lunch duty, and within a minute, knew I had to go home. I checked with the vice principal to be sure she could handle it by herself, notified the secretary I'd be leaving early, then spent 45 minutes contradicting myself by ensuring everything was in place for my sub, and headed for home. That night, I had a fever of 100.8.

The fever and the throat kept me home for the rest of the week, though I didn't decide to see a doctor until Thursday. The diagnosis: strep. It's Sunday morning now, and while the soreness has mostly abated thanks to penicillin, I've still got some respiratory grunge bugging me. Much worse is my cabin fever: for six days, I've only been out of this house twice. I missed cycling in the warm weather, running in the cool weather, walking in any kind of weather, shooting pool with Amy, eating out with Amy and the kids, doing anything at all that wasn't confined to the living room and bedroom of this house.

Mind you, I was productive: I completed all my grades for the semester, wrote four (and with this one, five) blog posts, played the piano, planned summer trips. I also napped much more than I'm comfortable with, naps so long it took me hours to shake the grogginess once I emerged from them. And I watched twelve hours of a British crime drama I'm convinced is a match for The Wire in its realistic portrayal of messed-up human lives, even if some of the plot twists come dangerously close to stretching credulity. (It's called Happy Valley, there are two seasons of it on Netflix, and it made me really homesick for northern England. Give it a go.)

Still, I'm frustrated and impatient, and it's been showing. My temper is short, and I've lost interest in doing any of the things I normally grumble about not having time for. Some of that crankiness is emanating from spending a week indoors with no exercise. But there's another factor that's at play here: grief.

I'm grieving the toughest job I've ever had.

This was supposed to be the week when I had my final lessons with fifteen of the twenty classes I teach. With the younger children, I was planning a "greatest hits" lesson, revisiting favorite songs and games from this year's curriculum. With the older children, we were going to have final drum circles. These lessons would be a way for me to say goodbye to kids I know better than any students I've ever had before. At the end of each day, I would've come home melancholic, but fulfilled.

Instead, strangers covered those classes, and I sat on the couch, or lay in my bed, reading, blogging, watching, grieving.

I've written a lot in the last three years about this job. Teaching music in the Reynolds School District is like white water rafting on a river with very few calm stretches: after awhile, the excitement ceases to be fun, and you just want it to be over. The high poverty creates behavior issues in every classroom, as well as an insufficient tax base to provide adequate staff, program, or facility support to address those issues. Turnover rates for students, teachers, and administrators are high, creating consistency problems at every level. After teaching there for just a few months, one realizes that the entire district is perpetually in crisis mode, never able to catch its breath long enough to think beyond the next catastrophe.

My own job is an excellent example of how this affects teachers. My first year was divided between two buildings, Margaret Scott and Hartley. In both buildings, I taught in huge echoey gyms with loud ventilation systems. My second year (thanks to the Portland Arts Tax), I was able to be full time at Scott, and now I was in half a classroom. The other half was a computer lab, frequently occupied by noisy classes (though when I was teaching drum circle or recorder, the joke was on them). For year three, I lost that space, and had to spend mornings itinerating to home rooms, afternoons in the gym. Next year's music teacher will be back in the classroom I had last year, though finally he or she will have the whole room. Other music teachers have had themselves involuntarily assigned to different buildings, had their jobs broken up between multiple buildings, or, in one case, reassigned to teach second grade. The location of the music room is never certain from one year to the next, always dependent on student numbers for the building.

And then there are the ever-changing administrators. In my three years, I had three principals. Only one of them was willing to acknowledge his own ignorance of music pedagogy, and to respect my training and experience enough to let me do my thing as best I could in the compromised conditions in which I had to teach.

It takes a special kind of teacher to stay in Reynolds, as the assistant superintendent I worked with last year in my role of music coordinator told me--just a month before he took a better job in the Portland School District. I've got great admiration for the veteran music teachers on my team, two of whom will be retiring next week after decades in the district. The rest of us--the newbies who are all still probationary--spend every summer applying to every other job that opens up in the Portland area. Especially once we've been through a couple of years in Reynolds, we see how things work. We've had enough of the erratic discipline policies, of never knowing what space we'll have to teach in, or how often we'll see students, or how we'll be evaluated by the next administrator to pass through the front office. And sometimes, we find ourselves having no choice but to look.

That's what happened to me in February, when I learned I would not be keeping my job at Scott. I've been down this road before--during the most recent recession, I spent four years un- or under-employed--so I jumped right onto the job boards, reactivating my profile, searching district upon district, filling out application upon application, until finally, after two months of holding my breath, I landed the elusive better job I'd been looking for, a photo of which appears at the top of the page. (It's Byrom Elementary School in Tualatin, and every time I think about teaching there, I feel an involuntary smile coming on.)

So I'm exhaling. No time will be spent on unemployment, or on a substitute's half-wages and minimal benefits. And for the first time since coming to Reynolds, I'm eagerly anticipating the next school year.

But lest you think it was all bad, I'll remind you what I said earlier: I'm grieving. As bad as this job has been, these children have gotten under my skin. I've always loved my students, but never as profoundly as the Mustangs of Margaret Scott.

It's not that they always behaved for me; far from it, as I've written again and again. It's not that they performed well for me; in fact, I was never able to put on a true concert at this school. No, it's something far different, a blend of the intensity with which they both needed and embraced music to bring some beauty and truth to their difficult lives with the sincerity of their appreciation for me as the agent of that musical blessing. As I've said repeatedly since taking this job: more children hug me in a week at this school than have in an entire year at other places I've taught.

I expect that I've contributed to this special relationship, as well. Teaching in these conditions has forced me to grow as a classroom manager, an improviser, a storyteller, and to be simultaneously more strict and more relaxed in my presentation. To go back to my rafting analogy: once you've survived enough Class IV rapids (and by the way, once was more than enough for me; you will not get me in one of those rafts again, ever!), I expect you can handle entire rivers of them with aplomb. I can smile through all but the most hectic and disrespectful classes, zeroing in on the moments of learning and engagement as my, and the children's, real reward for each lesson, minimizing the importance of the misbehavior, rejoicing for the fun we've had.

I can't get back the four days of goodbyes I just missed. Tomorrow, I will at least be able to teach that final lesson to the five remaining classes. Then Tuesday is Field Day (no specials), and Wednesday is the final day (hopefully no Rhythms, but if we do have to run it, it'll be a play day), and at 1:05, with happy summer music playing, I'll be in front of the school, waving as the buses pull away. During my free time (have I mentioned that I have entirely too much of it, that the Portland Arts Taxpayers aren't getting their money's worth with me only teaching music once a week to these children? And no, Rhythms doesn't count.), I'll be packing up all the equipment, most of which I've been unable to use, and printing out an inventory so my successor knows exactly what's there. It'll be a ridiculously well-equipped music room, probably better-equipped than what I'll find at Byrom. Here's hoping the administration hasn't decided between now and September that they need that room for something else, booting music back to a roving cart and a gym, and all those wonderful Orff instruments back into storage.

But that's not my problem. My primary task in the days ahead is to relearn how to exhale.

Whew.

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