Wednesday, March 28, 2018

There's more than one Dr. J.



I am standing like a deer in headlights in the English Department room; I am excited, scared, and nervous at the thought of beginning my teaching career in just two days.  I am talking to my department head and a couple of other first year teachers when another young person comes bounding into the room.  She literally is bouncing around the room picking up a couple of books and some supplies.  I immediately can feel her positive energy as she stops to introduce herself. 

"Hi, I'm Maryellen.  I'm one of the English teachers in the department."  She is friendly, energetic--and oh, did I mention nine months pregnant?!  Our department head says, "What are you doing here?  You should be having your baby."  Mary Ellen exclaims, "I know--I'm trying to!  I just did an aerobic workout on my Reebok step--trying to move things along.  I thought I would come in and pick up a few things for my maternity leave."  

I think my mouth hit the floor in shock--as I processed Mary Ellen's words.  She was ready to have a baby--and here she was calm, cool, collected, well maybe, actually more like energetic, enthusiastic, and excited!  She wished us rookie teachers good luck, said she'd stay in touch, and no joke--literally ran out of the room.  I thought, wow, can I borrow some of that energy?

Maryellen had her baby girl Jordi a few days later.  Mary Ellen would return to teach in January after her maternity leave was over.  In the meantime, I barely was keeping my head above water in my first semester of teaching.  Maryellen occasionally would check in with us newbie teachers, but of course she was taking care of her newborn at home.  When she did return months later, she became a lifeline, a mentor, and most importantly, a lifelong friend to me.  

It is critical for rookie teachers to have veteran teachers to throw them a life preserver--heck, life preservers--because we know there are many a day that rookie teachers are struggling.  Mary Ellen was that person for me.  I was so grateful to her as she shared many of her lesson plans with me, cheered me on when I had a classroom victory, and made me laugh at myself when I made mistakes.  She reminded me that none of us should take ourselves so seriously.  We all make errors--but we aren't those errors.

Reflecting back on my first two years of teaching, I learned invaluable lessons from Mary Ellen that I still embrace and embody in my teaching and parenting today. Oh and from here on out, I will refer to her as M.E. (I began calling her M.E. probably more out of desperation because when I needed to share a teaching story to say Mary Ellen was too long to get out in one breath).

*Teacher/student connection:  M.E. treated (and still does) her students with empathy, compassion, tough love, and humor.  She commands their respect and offers it right back to them.  She challenges them to think, to feel, and to take action in their lives--and they do. 

*Sense of humor:  She makes her students laugh and she makes her colleagues and friends laugh.  M.E. knows that laughter really is the best therapy.  

*Storytelling:  M.E. fosters a love for reading and writing in her students through her own personal story telling--M.E. has a talent for sharing a good story--she can invoke tears and/or side-splitting laughter as she delivers a story that usually offers an antidote.

*Food.  She feeds her students.  I quickly learned from M.E. that if our students are hungry, they won't be able to access the schoolwork we are asking them to learn.  She has helped many a student access resources necessary for survival.  She has helped students earn their high school diplomas or G.E.D. She has helped students obtain scholarships in which to provide them with the opportunity for a higher education.

*Her family.  A couple of years later, Maryellen gave birth to her daughter Meghan.  Her commitment to motherhood is another way she has become a role model for me.  She would blend her family in with her teaching by using family stories to provide personal examples within the English classroom.  She also would bring her daughters to school events where she could support her students while teaching her daughters valuable lessons.

She has worked both in suburban and urban school districts.  She recently earned her PhD and now is affectionately called by her students Dr. J.  

I am so grateful that after 20 years, M.E. and I stay in touch.  We adore one another's families.  We offer each other collegiate support.  We still tell each other stories and we still laugh a lot.   M.E. and I share a favorite poet--the beloved Maya Angelou.  It is only fitting that I end this blog with this quote as it beautifully reminds me of Maryellen.

"It's the fire of my eyes and the flash of my teeth, the swing in my waist and the joy in my feet.  I'm a woman phenomenally." Maya Angelou