pre-2009 i was not a violin virtuoso, so the damage my stroke did to my control of my left hand is an inconvenience and even a source of amusement at times.
i had not been training for a marathon when i was diagnosed with my brain tumor, so losing my ability to run didn’t force me to re-examine my identity.
i never was much of a fan of the circus, so my constant vertigo doesn’t deny me my dreams of life on a tightrope.
my double-vision hasn’t robbed me of a gold medal in the olympic biathlon.
but you know what i was before the medical drama of 2009? i was a good teacher. i was ms. york, and that meant something.
to finance the second year of my master’s degree, i applied for a position as a graduate teaching assistant in the speech communication department at osu. i was relieved when i was hired, but even though my friends and family were enthusiastic nearly to the point of giddiness about my return to teaching, i wasn’t. now, after the end of fall term, i can see why. i was scared. scared that i wouldn’t still “have it.” scared that i’d have to figure out how to be a person who used to be a really good teacher. because i don’t know that i could have survived that blow to my identity.
lately i’ve spent a lot of time thinking about teaching and classrooms and identity and authenticity. i’ve been “percolating” this post for months, but i haven’t been able to get it right. so i’ll take my own advice and get it down without worrying about getting it right.
several months ago, one of the professors on my thesis committee told me that i should read a hidden wholeness by parker palmer. i tracked it down and read it on the train to seattle a week later. dr. anderson was right – it was exactly the book i needed to read on that exact train ride. it got me thinking about when in my life i’d felt the most authentic. to me authenticity is that place where the circles that make up the venn diagram of my life overlap, and trying to expand that overlap is how i define living a more authentic life. as i read palmer’s book i kept hearing the phrase “room five” in my head. room 5 was the multiage classroom in jefferson, oregon, where i taught for the best part of my teaching career. life in room five wasn’t all fun, but while i taught there i got to spend the majority of my waking hours being myself. and sharing space with other people who were being themselves.
room 5 didn’t spring to life fully-formed like an elementary athena. it was actually part of a chain of things that continues to be created today. my parents have played a big part – sure, their logic and consistency haven’t always made my day, but they made for a childhood where i felt safe and capable. as i’ve gotten older i’ve realized how fortunate i was to feel safe and capable as a young person. i aspire to do what i can to give those feelings to my students.
my childhood neighbors, the charnows, did this amazing job of treating me as a friend without making me need to be more mature (or themselves less mature). it’s hard to describe, but it’s been the way i have built relationships with young people starting with the 3 charnow children, who were born when i was in elementary school.
when i was an undergrad, i worked at an infant/toddler center. my bosses were merilee and janet. they taught me a lot about child development and communication with parents and families, and also recognized that my instincts with kids were pretty good. their confidence in me helped me increase it in myself. as leaders they worked from the strengths of their employees – i didn’t realize that they were doing that until much later in my work experiences. i started babysitting for janet’s daughter, zari, and in the process became great friends with both of them. my life would be a very different place without the infant center.
and the lives of the people in my classes would also be very different if it wasn’t for my parents, the charnows, and the infant center. I built up some habits and instincts which have influenced the way i approach teaching and classrooms and work.
i started my elementary school teaching experience in a little rural school in kneeland, california. i student-taught in a K-3 multiage classroom, under the guidance of susan adams and her classroom assistant, jim cress. their classroom was a community, and i was fortunate to have it as a model early in my teaching career. i walked in the door every day and knew that would get to laugh and think and be seen. the mrs. adams and jim that those students knew were who they were in their whole lives – those were not invented school personas. they set a tone of appreciation in that classroom, and i am so grateful to have been a part of things. it changed me.
my first teaching position was as the only 4th grade teacher at a small rural school in humboldt county, california. i started teaching as soon as i graduated from college – i was 24 or 25 (about the age that my first students are now – so cool). it was a pretty hard-luck school in a hard-luck community – there were a lot of families living in poverty, a meth problem before very many folks knew what that was, and a lot of parents who hadn’t felt successful in their own school experiences and weren’t sure how to interact with the school system to support their children. of course these didn’t apply to all families, but i found myself drawn to the families and students who most needed my help. i realized that we all wanted to feel safe and capable, and that i could find things to like and respect about anyone who crossed my path. when i modeled that, my students did the same thing. it was awesome. i loved that school and even though i was excited to move to oregon, i was so sad to leave loleta.
then kegan demant friended me on facebook. it hadn’t occurred to me that facebook would end up bringing the loletians back into my life. when i saw kegan’s name and realized that i was going to have a way to know those former students as adults, i was thrilled. most friend requests started with something like, “you probably don’t remember me, but i was in your 4th grade class.” don’t remember you? i’ve never once been friended by a former student i didn’t remember. i think that comes from the charnows – paying attention is the way to make your world meaningful. there’s always something important going on if you’re paying attention. and from the infant center i learned to focus the majority my attentions on assets not deficits. and susan and jim’s big contribution was that everything was improved if kriste and ms. york were really different names for the same person.
when i start communicating with a former student, they inevitably ask me what they should call me. my answer is that they can call me kriste or ms. york – i answer to both. i still call my beloved high school english teacher “mr. pickering.” and he makes fun of me about it.
lately i’ve had an incredible surge in the ms. york department – yesterday a woman i work with pointed this out and wondered if the universe is trying to tell me something.
this summer i finally got around to asking a young woman from loleta about her younger brother, who kept me on my toes (this is a compliment) when he was a 4th grader. turns out that he’s an inmate at san quentin – not exactly what i wanted to hear, but i got his address and wrote him a letter. he wrote back right away, and getting an unprompted letter from his 4th grade teacher blew his mind. his letter was great – i could certainly still see that spark in him that i loved when he was a kid. we’ve written about a dozen letters since then, and he’s gradually painted a picture for me of his teen years and prison and the people who have impacted his life. i really am enjoying getting to know him again, and i’m aware that as ms. york i have a huge amount of credibility with him. i’m not trying to save him or convince him of anything – i’m really just enjoying the give and take of our correspondence. and maybe i remind him how it was to feel safe and capable – he hasn’t had much of that in his life.
a few months ago i got a friend request from a person with a last name i didn’t recognize. i looked at a few of her pictures and realized that it was one of those holy grail people i’ve always wondered about. i get choked up just thinking about it. then i found out that not only did i get to have her in my life again, but she was temporarily living with her brother and sisters about an hour away from me. so a week later i was sitting in a pizza parlor with the family. and the resilience of these people – they had terrible trauma happen in their lives, and have somehow remained absolutely delightful people. i even got to go trick-or-treating with this young woman and her two children.
i left loleta to move closer to my parents into corvallis, oregon. i got my dream job teaching a primary multiage class (grades 1/2/3) in jefferson, a community that needed good teachers. my classroom was room 5, and it meant something to be from room 5. a new principal came to the school my fifth year teaching there, and when he announced that over the summer he would dismantle the multiage program, i knew that i needed to leave. i couldn’t stick around to see the culture of our classroom taken apart. i am still sad (and a little angry) that i couldn’t stay. i took a job in corvallis, which ended up being a blessing because when my trauma hit that next summer i had a support network where i lived which was critical to my recovery, and to my quality of life.
that year teaching in corvallis also gave me an important analogy for what i was doing in my classroom. a co-worker once accused me of “really encouraging” a student who was a first grader and the embodiment of delight. yes, i encouraged him. i encourage all of them. i think of my classroom as one of those cool rock tumblers that seemed to be running at the back of every classroom in the early-eighties. my job isn’t to make someone into someone they’re not. it’s to smooth some of the rough edges and polish them up. i was able to do some of that with the 3/4/5 class i taught that one year, and i really enjoyed spending the day with the characters who ended up sharing space with me there.
but man i have missed jefferson. this summer i started driving again, which meant that the 30 minute trip back there was something i could do. so i invited my sidekick mrs. (redding) schmidt to meet me at the mexican restaurant for lunch. we talked about authenticity, and she also felt like room 5 was the place in her life where she was her most authentic self. while we were chatting, a young woman brought us a basket of chips. it was katia! she was in the first group of students i’d had in room 5 for all three years. from facebook it looked like her teen years were going pretty smoothly. and then there she was, in the flesh. her younger brother, who was also a room 5 kid, came to meet her there when she got off work. which meant that this happened:
i guess that this post has taken me so long because i have a lot to say.
back to the present. now i’m teaching a recitation section of intro to public speaking. once a week a few hundred students, mainly freshmen, go to a mass lecture on theory taught by a professor. she supervises a group of GTAs and adjuncts who teach classes of 20 students twice a week. we get to do the practical stuff, and my class somehow synthesizes all of my interests and skills. i love it. i loved the way my students came together as a group in the fall. thinking about how that happened last term and in the dozen years of teaching before that helped me to be able to label my expectations for myself and my new class that met for the first time yesterday:
during one lecture session last term, the GTAs gave short speeches to model the use of visual aids. i told the story about the only toy a student ever got back out of my epic toy collection. i brought the toy jesie swapped for it – next time i’m bringing jesie, who is now a high school student in corvallis. i asked my students to give me feedback about my speech. here’s one i loved:
during one of our last sessions, i pointed out that i have pictures of each of my classes and asked if i could take one of them. they humored me.
in the last few weeks i’ve reconnected with one of the room 5 kids. tyson. as my friend deb told him, he’s a legend. i bet i’ve said his name hundreds of times since i left jefferson. we became friends on facebook a year or so ago, and it seemed clear to me that he was having some turmoil in his life. at the end of november i sent him a happy birthday message (he turned 18!) and we started messaging back and forth about our lives, until i did the math and realized that i could just drive to jefferson and eat a meal with him. so we made plans. it was fantastic to be able to sit at a table with him – i was his captain of his fan club when he was 8 and i still am.
on her wall my grandma florence had the Y page from a room 5 alphabet book we made way back when – “tyson is yelling at ms. york.” here’s the illustration:
tyson liked the idea that we update it. my grandma would have loved it.
we’ve gotten together every week since then. it has been fantastic to have time to talk about the future and the past and the present – i think that it’s meant a lot to both of us. yesterday he headed to job corps in estacada, which i think will be a great thing for him. i’m looking forward to being a part of it, and glad for the time we had before he left.
then yesterday while i was waiting for a class i was looking through the contacts on my phone and saw a name and wondered if it was my former student noah’s mom. noah spent a lot of time with me when he was a first grader in room 5, and after i stopped teaching in jefferson. then i dropped off the face of the earth. i didn’t tell him what was going on because the plan was that i’d be back up and running within a month or two after my surgery. when that didn’t happen, i disappeared from his life and i’ve always felt bad about it. i wanted to explain that i hadn’t forgotten about him. and i missed him – i really enjoyed his company. we had gotten into a pretty great routine. so i texted this number in my phone and it was his mom! she said that they’re still nearby, that noah is doing great, and that he’s 13 and the oldest of 5 siblings. i asked her if we could get together this weekend. and then like magic i was talking to noah on the phone. i told him a little about what had happened and, empathetic and kind person that he is, he asked me what i’m studying at osu. i suggested that we catch up over lunch this weekend. i said that i’d take them all out, and he asked if it could just be me and him this time and the rest of them can come next time.
so it’s a pretty cool time to be kriste. or ms. york. i answer to both.