The nights before big events are full of hope. They are full of possibilities. They are full of dreams and expectations. But eventually, you wake up.
The night before I began student teaching, I went to sleep with butterflies doing nosedives in my belly. I got up once to make sure that I had ironed the collar on my white button down sleeveless top before scrambling back under the sheets, my head filled with dreams about my life as a teacher.
I dreamt about the next day, imagining myself walking into the inner-city Cleveland high school where I would be spending the next year. In my dream, my brown heels are clicking on the tiled floor. In my dream, I see a few students, and they look at me and smile. They respect me, and see me as someone who is old enough to have something worth saying, but young enough to still understand what they are going through. I am going to be an amazing teacher, and they know it. I dream about the impact I’ll make, the students I’ll inspire. In my dream, after a week of being in the classroom I am sitting on the corner of the desk while students read aloud introspective journal entries and describe their troubled home lives. I dream that after a month, I have saved a student who was contemplating suicide. I dream that after a year, I have won a student teaching award, helped a student who was suffering from an eating disorder, inspired four students to attend college, found internships for three others, encouraged two students to publish their stories, personally took a bullet in the right thigh for one student during a terrorist attack at the school and inspired a Hollywood blockbuster. In my dream, I am better than Erin What’s-Her-Face from the movie Freedom Writers.
In my dream that night before my first day of student teaching, I am still the ultimate package – the savior, the understander, the cool student teacher with a comforting smile and creative, yet challenging, ideas.
But eventually, I woke up.
I woke up easily, fueled by the adrenaline of my first day. I got dressed in the brown pants I had splurged for at a Banana Republic outlet. I layered a short sleeved turquoise sweater over the white-collared button down tank, being careful to neatly tuck the white shirt under the waistband of my pants. I slid my feet into brown t-strap heels, applied make-up, did my hair and left for my first day as a student teacher.
The very first day was designed to be an orientation for ninth graders and any new students transferring to John Hay High School. Since I was going to be teaching seniors, it was doubtful I would see any of my future students. I was a little annoyed at myself for wasting a professional outfit on a day when I would not see my students.
Despite being twenty-two years old, I had a petite body and rounded cheeks that made my age drop by at least 8 years. In fact, I would speculate that fifteen percent of my life has been spent explaining how old I am (Yes – I have gotten asked for my hall pass while teaching…). As a tiny, suburban woman who looked like the latest boy band groupie, I was prepared to work harder to earn respect from the inner-city students. Since I couldn’t change my bone structure or face, I bought clothes. I tried to use a professional outfit as a tool, a resource to make me look older than my students. I put together outfits that nonchalantly said, “Oh hello. I am a young, successful professional.”
That morning, after a general introduction in the auditorium we split the freshmen into groups. The teacher who would be my mentor teacher, Ms. D., and I took one group and headed to the dance room where we would monitor a game of “get-to-know-your-classmates” bingo. I held the door for the freshman and the two upper classmen who were leading the freshmen around the school, and all of the students filed in and made a giant circle. As they worked on completing their board, I walked around the inside of the circle with my shoulders back, making a conscious effort to fix my posture.
Ms. D. was at the other side of the circle talking with one of the upperclassmen. He was tall and was wearing the required uniform: a green polo shirt and khaki pants. What stood out was his faux-hawk hair cut. The faux-hawk was a fake Mohawk. Instead of having a shaved head with a tall, spiky gelled strip going down the middle, the thick strip of hair going down the middle of the head was only slightly longer than the rest of the buzzed hair. I had seen this look in college on the punk-rock kids who would also wear flared girl jeans and obscure band t-shirts. I was excited for this perfect opportunity to bond with this student, who I naively assumed would be into punk music and independent movies.
When I walked over, my mentor teacher was joking to the student about his watch, which was huge, plastic and white.
“Well David, at least I know you’ll never be late to class. You really can’t miss looking at that thing on your arm.”
David laughed, and told Ms. D. that this was the style.
“Who are you?” He looked at me with a sincerely puzzled look, and I realized that I had just been creepily hovering over the two of them.
“Here David, this is Ms. Pompili, your student teacher for the year.” Ms. D. introduced me and then left for a moment to help a freshman who was arguing about needing to have a different person for each bingo square.
“Hi, David,” I said with a giant smile and a wave. If I would have had a strip of yellow-smiley face stickers I could have been a greeter at a Wal-Mart. “I’m Miss Pompili.”
David was polite. He nodded at me. He waited for me to finish talking. And when he gave me my first student criticism of my long student-teaching year, he had no trace of sarcasm in his voice, but only honest confusion.
“Why are you dressed like that? You look like a librarian.”
I would have preferred sarcasm. If he would have said it as a joke, I like to think I would have retorted with a witty remark about his hair or watch. But he hadn’t said it as a joke. He honestly wanted to know why, as a young student teacher, I would choose to dress myself from a librarian’s wardrobe for the first day of school.
I had no answer. I shrugged my shoulders and kept smiling, realizing that the smile had most likely shifted from honest enthusiasm to awkward uncertainty.
“So, you’re going to be my English teacher?” David continued, his maturity showing as he tried to fill the silence.
“Yep, I sure am.” I responded quickly, excited to finally have words to say back to this future student.
“Well, just so you know, I’m always late to English class. I’ll probably always be late to your class.”
He looked serious as he said this, and I couldn’t tell if he was joking or preparing me. Either way, I realized that this was the perfect chance to prove my coolness with a witty, sarcastic comment.
“How could you be late with that thing on your arm,” I said, repeating the exact same comment I had overheard my mentor teacher say moments earlier. This time, David did not follow the comment with laughter and an explanation of the trends of today. Instead, he told me that he was just kidding, and then walked away to go check on the freshmen.
It would only take a few weeks before I stopped dressing in what I thought I should wear to look the part of “teacher” and started wearing what I liked and what I felt comfortable in.
A few months later and I was done trying to soak up and imitate the personality of my mentor teacher. I began making my own jokes and retorting straight-faced sarcastic comments as if I was with my friends.
I gave up the idea of riding in on a white horse and saving every student. Each morning I pulled up in my beat-up Ford Taurus, ready to try and make one small difference with one student. It’s amazing how the words “Oh! Now I get it! Thanks!” can feel better than any grand act of heroism.
It wasn’t until I gave up trying to portray the image of who I thought I should be and instead embraced who I was that I finally began making the small impacts that I had dreamed of. I was supposed to be the teacher, and while I didn’t know it then, that morning David had taught me my most important lesson of all.