“the kids are all right…
except when they’re not.”
Last week, I packed up 17 years’ worth of lessons, photographs, posters, thank-you notes, gifts, and other memorabilia from my classroom. I loaded up my car with a few banker’s boxes and a plant, like a scene from a sappy movie. I bid farewell to colleagues like I was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.
As you may know, in February I applied for, and received, a three-to-five-year leave of absence from teaching so that I may pursue teaching mindfulness full-time. I thought long and hard about the decision (as a left-brain buddha would), and ultimately came to the conclusion that the call to teach mindfulness to students and teachers has become more powerful, more compelling, and more purpose-filled for me than the call to teach European history.
I sobbed as I turned in my keys, ID badge, and parking permit. I love teaching. It is who I am. I have had the privilege to teach for 17 years in the same school, one of the best in the state, with many of the same amazing and talented colleagues year after year. I have taught brilliant and hard-working and energetic students. Though teaching is not an easy profession, I know I have laughed every single day I’ve taught.
What else do I know after 17 years of teaching? I know…
The Kids Are All Right…
For all the talk of today’s spoiled, entitled, helicopter-parented, lazy, inconsiderate (insert additional pejorative adjectives here) youth, I can tell you this: the kids are all right.
I have taught students who are at school by 6:50am to get additional help. I taught students who organized rallies to protest the war in Iraq in 2003. I taught students who organized the Young Republicans and Young Democrats and a Gay-Straight Alliance, and even a chess club and a knitting club. (Word has it there’s a mindfulness club starting next year!)
I’ve seen students stand up to bullying and join committees and organize events to create a positive school culture. I’ve had days where I have been blown away by the sophistication of my students’ thinking, by their eloquence, and by their energy.
The kids I have taught are passionate, hard-working, and basically amazing.
The kids are all right…
…Except When They’re Not
I’ve also experienced my share of heartbreak in 17 years of teaching. I’ve worked with students through depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. I cannot even count the number of kids I’ve seen in tears, sharing their painful stories and worries with me. Many kids today are under almost unbearable levels of pressure and expectations. I’ve taught students who struggled through addiction and abuse. My school community has tragically lost young people to suicide.
In many ways, our kids are NOT all right.
Perhaps this is what has led me to my new path. I entered the proverbial “dark night of the soul” several years ago as I struggled with postpartum depression. I suffered from panic attacks and terrifying intrusive thoughts. I thought I would never be happy again.
I was saved by the lovely combination of medication + meditation. Mindfulness truly changed my life. And I had powerful opportunities to learn how to teach mindfulness to young people — and their teachers.
The call to leave the classroom became stronger. I couldn’t prepare my students for AP tests AND teach them mindfulness AND grade their essays AND plan mindfulness sessions for teachers AND write for Left Brain Buddha AND be present with my own children and family…. I had to honor my personal limits and listen to the quiet voice inside.
And that quiet voice kept getting louder.
The kids are all right… except when they’re not.
Will mindfulness make everything all right again? No. Nothing is a cure-all for the ills of the world.
Is mindfulness a powerful start? YES.
Do our children need strategies for calming down, dealing with strong emotions, regulating the ups and downs of adolescence, paying attention, and living with greater presence and ease? YES.
Do I have the ability and opportunity and courage to do my small part to heal the world? YES.
So I’m leaving the classroom.
I have a new appointment to keep:
by Mark Nepo
What if, on the first sunny day,
on your way to work, a colorful bird
sweeps in front of you down a
street you’ve never heard of.
You might pause and smile,
a sweet beginning to your day.
Or you might step into that street
and realize there are many ways to work.
You might sense the bird knows some-
thing you don’t and wander after.
You might hesitate when the bird
turns down an alley. For now
there is a tension: Is what the
bird knows worth being late?
You might go another block or two,
thinking you can have it both ways.
But soon you arrive at the edge
of all your plans.
The bird circles back for you
and you must decide which
appointment you were
born to keep.
Here I stand, at the edge of all of my plans. I thought I would be in my classroom forever. I can no longer have it both ways.
But there are many ways to teach.
I am leaving the classroom empowered, not embittered. I am leaving the classroom not because I think the system is so broken or dysfunctional that I have to escape, but because I know I can transform it.
I am leaving the classroom because I know the appointment I was born to keep is the one that can show you — and kids and teachers and parents and administrators and anyone else who will look — the streets you have maybe never even heard of.