First Year Epiphanies: A Spring of Wellness
A merchant travels north along an ancient road, pulling an old cart behind him. He comes to an intersection where a woman with a bag sits upon a tree stump. She waves to say hello and points to a wheel on the merchant’s cart. Its condition is poor and will soon come apart completely.
“I know,” he sighs. “I’m not sure how to fix it, so I am going as far as I can.”
“Please,” she answers. “Let me assist.”
She produces a set of tools from her bag and within a few minutes, the wagon wheel is fixed. In the process, she shows him how to fix it in case it breaks again.
“Thank you,” the merchant says. “I can get to where I need without worries.”
“It is no problem. Happy to help.”
“Even still, I am glad you were along my path,” he continued before asking, “Are you traveling along the path to the east?”
“I do not know where I am off to next,” her reply. “My path brought me to help you.”
I wrote this parable to help me better illustrate one of the epiphanies I have come to during the first year of my dedicated career in education. I had not intended to wax philosophical with my next entry here at The Table, but I also had not intended to come to my own crossroads of revelation. This may not be anything new to most teachers, but I found it an important component of my own well-being. If a student’s success is our success, then would it also mean that a student’s well-being is our own well-being? Would our own wellness not influence that of the student?
There existed no crisis to solve, but to borrow a phrase from the television show Eureka, I stumbled into some “folksy everyman logic” (“The Story of O2”). In discussing this past year of teaching with my wife, also a teacher, I wondered out loud if some of my students were meant to come under my stewardship during both my first year of teaching and a global pandemic. Be it an issue I was uniquely qualified to approach or be it a need for a different tact, the question intended to ask if I was meant to be on their path. Yet, as the conversation continued, I began to consider: Were these students also predestined to meet me so I would be under their stewardship?
As one would expect, with these questions came self-reflection.
Hindsight being what it is, I picked an interesting time to switch to education. As tumultuous as the times have been for teaching, with new technologies and challenges, I can say that most of my perceptions of teaching came from the so-called “before times.” In practice, my experience is essentially nothing but what the pandemic has brought. When looking at various teaching modalities alone, concepts such as in-person delivery, lecture, assessment and in-class discussion were challenged constantly. I began the year teaching completely online, far from what I had ever envisioned. Teaching in twenty rooms spread across twenty different homes over a digital connection as opposed to a single classroom necessitated community building and searching out ways to keep students engaged. From this was born another epiphany: seemingly strange ideas have their place.
In a casual conversation with one of my co-teachers for Gothic Literature and fellow blog contributor Jessica Bailey, I brought up a random thought about Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology. My experience with the collection led me to
believe it was rather obscure, but Jessica showed me otherwise. Within a half hour, we brainstormed how we could utilize the text for community building and what assignments we could put together to unite our virtual students. We presented our thoughts to Corby Baxter, the final pillar in our Gothic trilogy. With his input, the strange idea became the foundation for our course: after discussing The Spoon River Anthology with our students, they could create their own fictional town as a class. They would then break into smaller groups and populate their town with fictionalized versions of themselves, purposely interconnecting these lives to various degrees during a time in which our own community was physically distanced due to the pandemic.
With strange ideas now fair game, I felt I had permission to let loose with some creativity. We Dark Masters, a joking name for ourselves during planning times for our “Reading in the Dark” class, knew we wanted to create an assignment that asked the students to give a familiar story a gothic retelling. Batting around some ideas, I wrote a gothic retelling of the children’s book If You Give a Cat a Cupcake by Laura Numeroff. My example, “The Hungering Cat,” gave our students permission to have fun in their own creative thinking while letting go of their concerns about what was considered right or wrong for the assignment. To me, their reimagined stories signaled that maybe I was doing something right.
Then, of course, just when we were hitting our groove, our school switched from online only to a hybrid model, which meant a regular rotation of different students in person one day and online the next. Building community online was necessary, but our community changed on a class-by-class basis. The consistency of change put me on edge. In the beginning, a fear of not doing enough for my students and self-doubt about my own capabilities as an educator sat with me on that precipice. However, as with everything else, walk that edge long enough, and it becomes easier.
Until, at least, we changed again, this time to the school opening to full capacity. Most students came to campus, and some stayed home to continue learning online. There came days when general anxiety sat heavy upon my shoulders and others when I simply felt overwhelmed with the newness of what I was doing. These were challenges in both a personal and a professional sense, but this phenomenon has never been exclusive to education. No epiphany is needed to divine the secret that change is stressful. But today, the year is almost done, and the edge isn’t so sharp. The cliff isn’t so high. The butterflies are ever so subtle.
Shifting between online and in-person learning and the adversity that comes with a pandemic defined what I consider normal, my starting point for the rest of my teaching career. My students’ struggles and adaptability are what have guided my process of handling that normal, shaping how I go about my business in the classroom. Recently, a student presented the idea that normalcy is an irrelevant concept as it is different for everyone. I could only wish I was that wise at her age. My normal is not the normal of my peers, nor should I or anyone expect to be. In typing the words, it strikes me as another epiphany.
Still, there exists ways and means to help everyone’s version of normal. Available technology has done much to smooth out interruptions from inclement weather days and health related accommodations. Growing pains, born from learning new technology on the fly or from the growing obsolescence of tried and true methodologies, continue, but a pandemic doesn’t interrupt just one sector of the world. New ecological extremes encountered in the year 2021 and the socio-economic inequities COVID-19 has exposed in many schools across the world prove not every epiphany is a happy one. One still needs humility.
I cannot truly say if I came to these revelations directly. In the era of COVID-19, there is not a direct line from point A to point B, a thought that has now grown into another epiphany. What I recall from my own high school experiences is that they were all about the directness of the line. In teaching my seniors, however, my intent is to begin their transition to college where that straight line is not always the best avenue to take. It never occurred to me that this concept of the multiple lines between two points embodied my teaching philosophy, but now that it has a name, it holds power for me. With these epiphanies has come growth.
Working as an IT professional before switching to education, I can’t say I experienced much growth, personal or professional. The highlight of the job was, and always will be, the people I met, but those friends aside, it occurs to me I put together twenty years worth of hardware repair and software troubleshooting without earning much more than a reputation as “Mister Fixit.” I will confess that I quickly became uncomfortable being called a “miracle worker,” especially in the context of working in a Catholic school for the vast majority of those two decades. Was it satisfying to send students, faculty and staff away happy with a working computer? Yes, but it doesn’t take long for that happiness to fade the next time a blue screen of death appears. Satisfaction is only fleeting. What then was I gaining? What was I accomplishing?
When I settled upon pursuing a literature degree, there were two questions I commonly heard. The first involved me asking people if they wanted fries with their food order. The second involved me being asked if I intended to teach. I hadn’t given it much thought to the latter because I believed the main class I wanted to teach, creative writing, was unattainable. I had placed it on a high pedestal as THE class every English teacher wanted. Then I was asked to be a guest speaker for my school’s creative writing course because one of my short stories had recently been published. I remember joking to my wife that morning: “I wonder if this is a tryout?” As it turned out, that was exactly the case. Creative writing became my class, and to an extent, it became a tryout for teaching other English classes. Now, I’m a year into teaching Gothic literature and creative writing with IT firmly set on the path behind me.
A year in, this feels right.
I see my growth. I find myself directed into and welcomed by new frontiers of thinking. Skills in the realms of communication and problem solving that may have been stunted in the IT industry have room to flourish. I can point to actual accomplishments. I am inspiring learning and change for the better. Satisfaction, gratification, pick the word. Enjoyment seems so simple a way to describe it, yet it feels appropriate. It is one thing to know you can fix a road when needed. These are important skills that should never be discounted. But what if you can build a bridge?
My bio on this blog names me as an “occasional vocational tumbleweed,” a reference to my transition from IT to teaching. What this does not state is that the tumbleweed found a destination. At that destination, wellness sprang for me as an individual and by extension, my students. From that spring, the waters enliven the wilderness of this pandemic, but also our lives. Be it fate, predestination, or coincidence, my students are on my path just as I am on theirs. They shape me as a teacher every bit as much as I shape them.
I recall the quote from Joseph Campbell: “What am I? Am I the bulb that carries the light, or am I the light of which the bulb is a vehicle?”
Maybe it is a circuit. Light or bulb itself, one cycles into the other.
Kyle Lee is also known as our Literary Hephaestion and Occasional Vocational Tumbleweed
The Hungering Cat by Kyle Brandon Lee
After Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Cat a Cupcake
Upon my porch I sat, treating myself to a sweet confection of my own making. Then the creature came, its eyes yellow and its fur black. Feline in nature, it first gazed upon me and then to the sweet I held in hand.
“Human, may I have a bite?” it suddenly spoke. “For I hunger. It has been so long since sustenance visited upon my belly.” Never had I seen such a sight, heard such a question from a voice not from a human. Yet I, not meaning to be rude, acquiesced, giving the shadow furred cat the confection it so desired. “Oh, how I’ve hungered,” the creature said. “Oh, how I’ve missed such rich flavors. Alas, may I trouble you for a dash of sugar?” In the time since, I’ve recognized that the creature played upon my pride. I, no baker of extraordinary skill, basked in the compliment and apparent desire for more. I retrieved a cup of sugar to meet the creature’s request but in no time, it had made a mess in its consumption. “Let me assist you,” the creature said as I began to sweep the errant grains of sugar. The act of cleaning the mess, though small, bored the diminutive beast. It sat its rear quarters upon my porch and met my eyes with its own yellow orbs. “My hunger is sated for now, human. Come with me, for I have remembered such things my hunger hid. Come with me and I shall repay you for your kindness.” Was it greed that bid me to follow? Some other deadly sin? I followed the feline with the commanding voice to the seaside. Uncharacteristic to its normal kin, the cat stepped into the water as the waves encroached upon the beach. “I remember the shells and how they sing,” the creature began, its voice growing deeper, stronger. “I remember building castles to embolden an empire. There were treasures, uncovered from the time before Noah’s flood. I would gather them now had I the strength. Now, my recollections bid me to move on. Come human, let us find a summit for us to gaze from.” I found I could not speak and thinking on it now, I cannot confirm or dispel the notion that I was transfixed under the cat’s spell. The creature knew its destination and I followed obediently. Led to the central park of the city, I watched as men and women avoided crossing the path of the cat. They did not raise their eyes nor did they acknowledge my presence. Was it pity I felt from them as they left me to my fate? Did they sense then what I did not? There, in the park, a great rock loomed. At its summit, the creature rested, fixing its gaze upon the city and small pond which splashed with the increasingly ill winds. “I remember this stone. Once it was a grand monument to my greatness. The waters below cover the remains of the temple where my followers would congregate. They were a seafaring people and, in my reign, sea fearing.” I had come to realize my fate. I had boarded a ship against my will and this creature, this eldritch beast commanded it as a captain besieged by glories gone. “I have been to your halls of science, human,” the beast said. “I have seen the extinct, the cold blooded and warm alike. Failed tyrants. Would be engineers of a superior civilization? Oh, how they have forgotten my power. Never more.” The cat said little else. He left that stone, me following three feet behind. The cat passed by the beach, looking once more into the growing tempest in the distance. “My hunger shall no longer hinder me.” The cat returned to my home and jumped into the chair I sat upon when I first encountered this beast. It saw a bit of sugar still scattered on the floor. “Human, fetch me another of your treats. For I hunger. It shall be long before sustenance goes unvisited upon my belly.”