The day begins with tweaking. That is all that life is, really. Just one small tweak in a different direction and the result could be completely the opposite. If my daughter tweaks that steering wheel just a little more to the left, we could have a head-on collision. If I tweak my reaction to her left-leaning grip to a scream instead of a stifled breath, the whole day could be doomed by her admonishment of my “criticism.”
If you could just tweak your lesson by a few words, you could build up the academic vocabulary.
If you could just tweak your email a little bit, I would actually understand the task you are asking me to accomplish by the end of tomorrow.
If you could just tweak the fuck out of this pay scale, maybe I could afford to breathe.
The day ends with tweaking. Eighteen months into planning a trip with one of these multi-million-dollar scams to take some students to Costa Rica to complete sixteen hours of service, to have a purpose for their privilege, the rep from the company calls to inform me that no one else signed up for the service trip for that week, that we won’t be able to take that tour, that we will have to do the normal tour, pay a bit more, add an extra day, horseback ride, visit a national park, see the sea, be the fucking privileged bastards that we are, never making even the least bit of a positive mark on this cursed world.
“Are there any other options?” I ask after she has already said to me, “Was it your personal preference to do service or a school district requirement?”
I should have said school district requirement. I should have gathered up the words I have in my heart now, about how hard this has been to organize, how few students I’ve recruited, how my colleague can’t even come because we don’t have enough, how angry I am that after all this time, NOW, now I find out that I can’t even do the one thing I wanted to do? Teach English to small kids? Clean up a littered beach? Build a latrine? Something that makes a difference?
I should have tweaked my words, my never-present verbality incomparable to print, to thought, to hours later and all the tweaks I need to fuck this day.
During first period on a 90-minute-class block day, the few of us who had planning should have been feeling pumped. No students yet. No admin. No meetings. Just a moment to think about what we could do, what minds we could shape, what students would be there and what students we hoped wouldn’t.
And what did we discuss? A broken-down car, an Uber driver who saved the moment and makes more money than us in a day. Dog walking that pays double our salary. Being a trainer for Lowe’s. The emotional drain of being asked to please one hundred students, at least half of their parents, all of the admin, all of the district, all of the “failed” test scores, all of the data-driven nightmares, all in a day’s work.
It was a short discussion. We returned to our paperwork nightmare, our school district applications that freeze without warning on cheap PCs that break without warning, our plans that get interrupted by ten passes in a period, phone calls asking about missing students, requests for kids to attend assemblies, students who leave to pray, students who leave to get chips from the vending machines, students who won’t put their phones away, strings of emails five miles long trying to help the students who won’t help themselves, strings of want five miles long that stretch between breaks that, without, we’d utterly fail.
Could I tweak this? Could I just change five minutes of this lesson to ignore my Syrian refugee whose question (directly related to our reading, I promise) breaks me down to my core?
“Miss, why do white people think that they need guns? Who are they trying to kill?”
What academic vocabulary can I infuse into my white-supremacist rant, my explanation of three hundred years of slavery and colonization that we are just now taking the first steps to recover from, what words can I tweak to make her understand the weight of my response?
The weight of her question?
The weight of it all. The weight we carry with their questions, their presence… their absence.
My Honduran beauty, quiet as a field mouse, who ran away for ten days, scaring the shit out of all of us, her stepsister coming in teary-eyed and disheveled, whispering about the police, the older boyfriend, the fear. And when she miraculously reappeared after the break, I couldn’t do anything but wrap my arms around her, to tell her that everything was going to be OK, even though she knows I’m lying, that she has already flown across this border to live with a mostly-unknown father and stepmother, her mother back home working to her bones under the brutality of gang violence.
Could I tweak my interaction with this child, teach her how to take the SAT to the satisfaction of my school district?
Could I tweak this day, this or that news, this or that email, this or that career, to make all of it feel like it’s worth my time? My soul-bearing, heart-breaking time?
“If only I could write,” one of the teachers said this morning. “Maybe I could get some books published, make some money, get out of this.”
And she’s only five years in. Maybe she could find her words, find her magic, and escape the hell that we go through each day.
But then she wouldn’t have the stories. Those kids, they burn us and break us and… save us.
“This is my favorite class, Miss,” a boy with a 42% tells me after school, begging for work before the semester ends. “You are fun, and you make me work so hard.”
Not hard enough, I think. Could I have tweaked my thirty-person ELD class to differentiate for his specific needs?
I have a million messages from parents and students and admin and I shouldn’t be taking the time to write this post.
But no matter how much I try to tweak it, the work of a teacher never ends.
And no matter how much I try to tweak it, the love for teaching never ends.
And that is why I will rise tomorrow and face the same battles. The emails. The absences. The presence. The questions. The turns. The work.
With a little tweaking, maybe I can turn this work into a life. It’s only a matter of turning the wheel.