“Working with kids is powerful, and there is always the possibility to make a difference each day, each year. It is rejuvenating.”
Sean Campbell is a language arts teacher at Homer High School. He attended the Spring 2014 Talk Story, Write Story workshop in Homer.
WHY I AM A TEACHER
Make a Difference
One of my favorite spoken word poets, Taylor Mali, wrote a poem called “What Teachers Make.” From the first time I heard it to the most recent, it continues to resonate with me in a visceral sort of way. It punches me in the gut and urges me on each day. While teaching in Thailand, I would listen to it each morning before I embarked upon the 45 minute cab ride through the streets of Bangkok to the suburban elementary school where I taught wealthy Thai children English vocabulary once a week in an air conditioned room without chairs or desks and an assistant who slept under the desk, hung over, in between periods. His words were like a mantra to nullify this less than ideal professional situation.
Mali begins the poem with a conversation between himself and a lawyer. The lawyer asks Mali “to be honest,” and tell him what he makes, followed by a knowing chuckle. Of course, the lawyer is referring to Mali’s, and teachers’ in general, salary. Mali bites his tongue, as he says, because this is “polite conversation,” and he refrains from biting the lawyer, but his poem elaborates upon what he actually makes: he makes his students spell “definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful” over and over again; he makes them show all their work in math and “hide it in their final drafts”; he makes them question, and think, and believe, and create, and realize. Ultimately, as Mali concludes, he “makes a god damn difference,” and questions what the lawyer makes.
It is brilliant. It is what I aspire to each day.
My mother is a teacher, so, too, was my grandmother. It is in my blood. To this day, my mother teaches biology classes in New Jersey, and will still tell me stories of taking her students to look at stream bed ecosystems, or dissecting owl pellets with them, or initiating a trip to state parks to study the wetlands. It’s not too far away from the woman who raised me in the mountains of Idaho to see the potential in the land and the beauty in life. My grandmother, on the other hand, taught elementary school in Nampa, Idaho, while raising four boys. Her teaching never ceased at the schoolhouse: her blackberry patch, garden and kitchen table were a classroom for her grandchildren, myself included. It was here that she taught through stories.
So it comes as no surprise that working with kids is what I have done, in some capacity, since I was 19 years old. I have coached sports, helped run a summer camp, taught outdoor education classes, taught English as a foreign language in a Bangkok suburb, and taught language arts classes at Homer High School. In some ways, teaching is all that I know. Yet, it is far from a familial duty or lack of creativity in seeking other options, it is because it is the most dynamic, challenging and inspiring work that I have ever done. Working with kids is powerful, and there is always the possibility to make a difference each day, each year. It is rejuvenating.
Oddly enough, when I first went to college, I wanted to be a lawyer, but the image of trying to teach my dry political science textbook gnawed at me through many an evening and I eventually sought to make the daydream a reality. However, it took a couple of semesters and a couple of years after graduating for me to decide upon and act upon teaching language arts. When I did, I knew that it was right. I would be able to blend my boyhood love of reading with my burgeoning love of crafting words. I would be able to explore the inherent power and value of story for humans, and in doing so, I would be able to examine what it means to be human with my students. This is what continues to drive me.
Each year this reality becomes clearer. I can distinctly recall the day two years ago when my senior class was reading Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” It is a short poem laden with visual imagery, which we were studying at the time, but, as is often the case with Frost, it was a poem about mortality, about how nothing remains constant, no matter how beautiful or golden. My class could see their upcoming graduation in the distance, and there was a collective realization that their high school experience was coming to an end, friendships would wilt, bedrooms decorated with their hands would be redone, Homer would become a place to return to rather than their home. These epiphanies are not isolated experiences. My students and I use stories and writing to explore our own humanity and our culture’s humanity-as I tell my literature students at the beginning of the school year, there is only one true story told in all of literature, it is the story of human existence.
And it is through their own writing that I hope they discover how they can beautifully and powerfully articulate their own beliefs. I want them to see that they can create vibrant imagery and refreshing phrases that stun, and I want them to see how language is liberating and powerful. On many occasion, I have had a student lament over our vocabulary instruction, an SAT prep program of words that some consider irrelevant to say the least, and I respond to their frustration by explaining that a vast vocabulary equates to freedom and power, as it allows each of us to articulate what we think and feel, who we are. Recently, I recall sharing with my students how you can combine two sentences with a colon. One asked how that was different than using a semi-colon, and I exploded with enthusiasm, showing how language can be liberating, it is an act of democracy, it is liberating because with language we have choices. I hope to convey these same sentiments and more as my students write. I want them to see that they can write powerfully, gracefully, precisely, and confidently.
Just as I did each morning in Bangkok, I return to Taylor Mali. This winter, during the doldrums of darkness and a dearth of snow, I received an email from a former student. It was the kind of email that every teacher hopes for at some point. Sitting at my desk on a Sunday afternoon, I read her words. I read how she continues to love literature, as she has since she was a child; I read how she finds writing powerful; I read how she traveled to Central and South America and taught impoverished students; I read how she teaches in an urban center rife with neglect and poverty. As I read her words, I felt a sense of pride in what she was doing. She was truly dedicating her life to helping others. However, what humbled me, what reduced me to a tears on this Sunday afternoon was reading that my passion for literature, my passion for writing, and my passion for my students inspired her to also teach. What I have worked towards for my adult life was articulated in beautiful and powerful and precise prose on the computer screen in front of me. I cried because I made a difference.