My first year of teaching in middle school was an onslaught of reading quizzes, vocabulary lists, lunch duty, reading skills and faculty meetings. It didn’t really leave a great deal of time for reflection other than the simple thought that I wasn’t quite living up to my ideal of changing the world through teaching.
During my second year, we adopted a new English curriculum that was more inclusive of diverse voices, and I hoped that it would provide me more of those “teachable moments” in which I could do the real teaching. It was in that second year that I began to learn that sometimes curriculum isn’t enough.
Leslie was an inquisitive student in my seventh-grade English class. During the fall, her voice resonated through class as we diagrammed sentences, dissected imagery in Paul Fleischman’s poem Chrysalis Diary or discussed the characters in Gary Soto’s short story Seventh Grade. Her writing demonstrated maturity and a well-organized mind. The literature prompted discussions about prejudice and bias, and Leslie engaged fully, helping to create what I thought was an inclusive classroom.
In the spring, her behavior changed radically. While her academic performance did not suffer, she no longer spoke up in class. Frequently, she would have to rush out of the room for the bathroom. And a few times, I noticed that she left with tears in her eyes. When I asked the school counselor, she refused to comment about anything specific. Even when Leslie left school for a week, we were never told much. Leslie returned to class eventually. But she was never the same vibrant presence in class that she had been before.
During the next fall, after another prolonged absence, the counselor explained the source of Leslie’s troubles. During seventh grade, she had begun the process of questioning which ultimately led her to come out to her friends and family. Before Leslie found acceptance from them, she had turned her pressure and turmoil inward by self-mutilating. Her absences corresponded to extended stays at a facility for treatment for her self-mutilation.
Though I have moved from Massachusetts to Texas, from public to independent, from middle to high school, I still remember Leslie’s experience in my “inclusive classroom.” She taught me that the curriculum of the classroom is more than the books read, concepts learned and papers written. The students are the curriculum that we, the teachers, must learn.
Every year, in class, we discuss difficult texts and current social issues. We might look at homophobia and bullying in The Catcher in the Rye, feminism in Frankenstein or racial prejudice in the poetry of Langston Hughes. At some point I will have at least one parent who expresses “concern” about the book, the discussion or the serious “real” issues. Some parents are more polite than others in how they express their concern. Many worry that the literature will give the students suggestive or incorrect ideas about the topics (that shouldn’t really be discussed in polite circles).
In those moments before I draft my e-mail response or prepare to dial the parent’s cell phone number, I think of Leslie and the courage she showed in eighth grade when she returned to school. She accepted who she was, and she had decided that she would not let others define her identity for her. When I think of Leslie’s courage, my hands never shake as I type or dial. I am simply ready to teach another student a most valuable lesson.
Elliott teaches English in Texas.