I was only about seven years older than my students when I stepped into my first classroom as a sophomore English teacher. Wanting desperately to be taken seriously, I took pains to dress the part of a matronly curmudgeon. Glasses perched just so on the bridge of my nose. Scarf knotted smartly around my neck. Shapeless dress. Cardigan. Sensible shoes. I methodically dismantled my identity as a fresh-faced twenty-something, and built a wall between myself and the students on the other side of my podium. After all, I was the wise and worldly Miss Darrow. They - those children out there - had so, so much to learn from my 23 years of life experience.
Anyone who has worked with kids knows, my approach was successful maybe ten minutes. Despite a rigorous teacher prep program and successful student teaching experience, as the students filed out of Room 47 at the end of class, it was painfully clear that I was the one who had the most learning to do.
The first lesson? My students are people. People with their own perspectives, strengths, talents, hang ups, and burdens. They may not yet have mastered where the comma goes, and they may explode with indignation if I don’t believe the dog actually did eat the homework, but each possesses unfathomable intelligence, grace, and potential. Delightfully, they may not yet have discovered or grown faith in those parts of themselves. Which is where a truly wise teacher and mentor has the honor and duty of creating space and time for them to do so. Certainly, the curriculum we teach is valuable, but even more important is that what we teach is a vehicle for self-discovery.
For instance, I got to be there when Kristen Stoller choreographed the dance numbers for our entire production of Little Shop of Horrors. Check out Chehalem Valley Dance Academy (http://www.iheartcvda.com/), the premiere dance company in our community where she proudly declares that “dance skills are life skills.” I had front row seats to the blossoming of Alex Polvi’s concept of himself as a leader, thinker, and world changer. These days he’s innovating little things like, oh, cloud technology in San Francisco and challenging other young entrepreneurs to positively impact the world. (alex.polvi.net) I got to read the burgeoning personality of John Clary Davies each week in his freshman essays. Know where he is these days? Writing for Powder Magazine, where ski fans around the world tune in for doses of his humor and wit. (http://www.powder.com/author/jdavies/) There’s Emily Rallo, pediatric nurse who I first met just after she’s interned in PNICU as her senior project. Her passion for nurturing children and their families glowed from her, even as we sat working on craft projects at camp that summer. And Zack Geary, the youngest person to run for McMinnville City Council! The community activist he is today once organized service projects and food drives with me. And Elise Huerta-Enochian? These days she directs Transition Projects, Inc. (http://www.tprojects.org/) in Portland, Oregon addressing the homeless crisis. Once upon a time, she was in the leadership class I advised. Even then, she had an eye for service and developed a course called Leadership in Action for freshman as a way for them to give back to our community.
All of these young people once sat in the desks on the other side of my podium (which quickly found its way to the hall...who needs a podium when “discussion with” is so much richer than “talking at”?). While I like to think that I taught them a thing or two, in reality, it has my students who have taught me most about what it means to be a good human. They taught me to be my true self. When I am, they are. My classroom is a container. A container with walls that must expand to allow for the growing definitions of self and purpose that my students and I explore.
Sometimes it’s hard to look back on poor granny-glasses-wearing Miss Darrow and feel love. The most important instruction she needed? Be unlimited. (Where the comma goes? There’s always time to learn that, even if the English teacher in me posits that we must learn it! For now, learn YOU.) Be unlimited and invite others to join you.
Left: Elise (Flanders) Huerta- Enochian, Angela (Darrow) Newport, Ashley (Bernards) Hunt, McMinnville High School graduation 2005.