SoDak it Hurts

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 29 2010

What it Takes to Begin -Excerpt- “Wake Up Call”

As previously mentioned, while traveling this summer, I’ll be updating SoDak it Hurts with excerpts from the ‘zine we created this spring around the idea, What it Takes to Begin. I hope you enjoy!


Wake Up Call

Why? I ask myself.  Why am I still here?

A question—one of many—that I cannot answer.

Yet it is 3 AM and I am springing out of bed to silence the alarm before it wakes up my housemate.  Fighting to keep my eyelids open, I peer hazily at the scribbled beginnings of unfinished lesson plans on my desk and reach for the day-old coffee to my right. Coffee I was supposed to drink last night– I guess I fell asleep before I got that far.

As I walk to the school three hours later, I force myself to focus on the sun rise, to realize the beauty around me that promises I can be happy here.  My eyes trained on the water-colored rose streaking the blue horizon, I battle the surreal sense that I am not supposed to be here—that I am not good enough for this job.  This crushing feeling, I know, will intensify when I face my daily audience of the eighty wild spirited and amazing young adults I have been entrusted to educate.

The school—a warm, safe asylum– is a welcome change from the blizzard-like weather outside. I walk into my organized classroom and start my routine, going through the motions to get ready for the day. But the shame of my inexperience and the doubt in myself remain like weights in my stomach, constraining my spirit which is fighting so hard to make me aware of the marvelous opportunity in this position.

So what gives me the courage? I ask myself silently. What gives me the courage every day to begin again?

The lines of a song run through my head:  “So make the most of this task and don’t ask why.”  But that’s not good enough.  Another snatch of words come to me, this time from a poem my friend—who is teaching fifth grade in inner city Chicago– sent to me:

But no, not today

The stereotypes won’t play out

My energy won’t fade out

And I can,

Because they can.

There are many days when it is the thought of his intense, dark eyes that gives me the strength to face another day.  Eyes so like mine that they make me wonder when I’ll be able to find the strength in my own eyes—in myself.  I think about him—his dedication, love for his students, and unwavering commitment to their education—frequently on my early morning Rez runs. But what really tugs at my heart about his poem are those two final lines: I can, because they can.

Today, Darion comes up to my desk and puts a stack of tickets two inches high on my desk. They are tickets he stole from me about two weeks ago.  I was silent then; he is silent now as he goes back to his desk.  I write out a post-it note and stick it on his desk: “Thank you for the tickets. I am proud of your honesty.”

Two months earlier, fifteen year old George—the same George whose notebook I sprayed with perfume so he would stop eating the paper out of it—wandered into my homeroom and threw a three page memoir onto my desk.  He turned and walked out of my room in the middle of my praise.

Then there are days when I walk into the cafeteria trailing my sullen eighth graders, when I’m met unexpectedly with an excited chorus of “Hey, it’s Miss _______!” from my fourth grade cross country runners as they finish up their lunches. They make me feel as if I have done some good here.

There are more days, however, when I hang by the recorded words of the lama who recites the meditation I listen to each morning before heading to school:  “See things as they are.  Showing up is most of the game here.”  I show up.  But that can’t be enough.  Can’t the students see that I’m failing them? I ask myself. Can’t they see that they would be better off with anyone in the world standing in front of them besides me?

Sixth grade Sara can’t.

“I’m done, Miss ________,” she says, raising her hand and leaning back in her desk.

For this Friday’s poetry assignment, I cut up song lyrics and let students rearrange them into original poems. I look over her shoulder at the single line she has glued onto her piece of bright pink construction paper:

Promise     Me        You’ll       Stay

Why, Sara? My heart cries out to her.  Why do you want me to stay?

My students remind me that every day is a new beginning, and that is incredibly empowering.

My thoughts—they jump around a lot these days—turn to a conversation I had with my cousin over Christmas break. She is currently student teaching, and she asked about my experience in South Dakota.  I tell her I am teaching writing—the thing I love more than anything else in my life—to a group of troubled kids who could use written expression as a powerful outlet.  What better job is there? But, I continue, I have turned writing from the awesome and life-saving joy that it is into a daily grind and torture…

During this conversation¸ my cousin looks deeply into my eyes; she can sense my frustration and my discouragement.  “I’ve asked veteran teachers about their first year,” she tells me.  “They all get this dark, far off look in their eyes, and they all say the same thing—that who you are as a teacher in your first year is no indicator of who you will become as a teacher.”

A shred of hope is all it takes to change a life. I carry her words with me now; I repeat that powerful mantra to myself every day.  How I teach now is no indicator of how I could teach someday.

Who I am now is no indicator of who I could become.

Showing up is most of the game here.

I can, because they can.

Hope, faith, love.  Without them I would not survive here.

Those three saviors are key stepping stones on this leg of my journey, as is the compelling intuition that I am linked to something larger than myself.  I was chosen for a worthwhile and highly meaningful profession; I work every day with children who teach me more than I could ever teach them. I don’t believe in myself—but they believe in me. And something else out there believes in me, too.

Why am I still here? I do not think I will have an answer to that for a very long time.

But: What gives me the courage to begin—and begin again?

The undeniable conviction that I’m exactly where I need to be, even though right now I might not know why.

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    About this Blog

    I taught 10th Grade English on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota between 2009 and 2011. Currently blogging at

    South Dakota
    High School

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