This blog recorded the furthest I’ve ever lived from home, the hardest thing I’ve ever done, the most introspective, driven and focused people I’ve ever met.
The words here came out of lonely times and days when I thought I couldn’t do anything to help the students I was teaching.
Rarely here did I recount stories of rigor from my classroom or new tactics for raising reading levels – I talked about relationships.
That’s what pulls you through something difficult for two years: good, hard relationships.
On the first day of a new quarter, the students would always ask me: “You’re from Dallas – why the hell are you here?”
At first, I couldn’t answer them with anything but hollow words about making a difference or going on an adventure far away from where I was raised.
But it didn’t take long for my response to be something like, “I’m here because I’ve never felt community like I feel here before in my life. We take care of one another here. We really know one another.”
I was pushed to be uncomfortable – to find new ways of thinking about problems and to remember that everyone has a story. A good friend of mine that came up to visit said a few weeks ago: “What if everyone had the privilege of a flashback?” What if we all had the chance to let someone see inside of us and know the road, the bumps and the bruises that put us where we are today?
And I learned about consistency and ownership and action. Our lives are only qualified by the regular, measured responsibility we take over our output. Nothing else matters. The classroom taught me this, students taught me this, a community on the Rosebud Reservation taught me this and yes, Teach For America taught me this.
We all have great ideas that never see the light of day. I’m guilty of that. There are so many other things I could have done with my classroom, so many more hours I could have spent preparing the classroom. There are so many times I could have been more consistent in expectations, discipline and my own level of investment. And it would have been nice to stay for a third year – to perfect the classroom a little more. I almost did. Many mornings, in fact, I wonder if that’s what I should have done.
But, as I always told my students – we’re on the search for the next hardest thing. We’ve got one timeline in life that’s peppered with hash-marks of memorable moments. Those moments and experiences are multiplied and time slows down when we put ourselves in new and challenging situations.
It was hard to move up to South Dakota and it was very hard to leave. I think at some point, you cross the threshold of a challenge and this new song echoes inside of you from further away than you’ve ever been. And you have to charge in that direction.
A mentor of mine who reluctantly left South Dakota after seven years of teaching once told me, “What would I be showing my students if I stayed around because it felt comfortable and safe? I not only teach in the classroom – I teach with my life. I have to be pushing on to new and difficult things as well.”
Every year in May, there’s a TFA alumni induction ceremony where all of the corps members completing their two-year commitment are recognized. When they call your name and you walk up to the stage, accept your plaque and they read a comment from one of your students.
A young man from my 10th grade English class said this: “Pugh wants us to be visionaries, he’s taught us that not every question has a right answer.”
As I’ve said before, you can’t measure that. I stumbled through two years of teaching, but my students grew as readers and writers and now (at least I like to think so), there’s also this want in side of them that wasn’t there before we began our journey together.
So, thank you.
Thank you to a new community, the prairie, the black hills, the badlands, my students, their families, the 2009 South Dakota Corps. Thank you for the last two years – the hardest years of my life. The years where there was no escape from the good and difficult thing in front of me. Where the only option was to teach and live well.
Toward the close of this last school year in May, a retiring Todd County High School teacher sent out his last all-staff email that contained one simple Lakota phrase: Toksa ake.
It means, “I’ll see you again.”
And I will.