It’s a strange job, being a teacher. It turns out, teaching is perhaps the easiest and least taxing part of being an educator; it’s the rest that takes a toll. The lesson planning, the meetings, the grading (dear god, the grading), the department meetings, the in-service days, the faculty meetings, the parent calls and emails, the IEP meetings, the researching of new material, the parent teacher meetings, and then there is the emotional toll of dealing with all of it, your home life, and all the little bits and pieces of emotional baggage your students unintentionally foist off on you. Add to all of it, this year we have COVID, hybrid teaching, and dear God, Zoom meetings.
It reminds me of when I was a young man and I wanted to be an astronomer. I have always loved science and the thought of traveling amongst the stars, even by telescope, was entrancing to me. My parents bought me a beginner’s telescope and I saw comets and nebulae, Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons. I learned the constellations, the positions of the planets, and the best times to see these things. It was magic to me. Then, for class one year, I did research into a job I was interested in and of course I picked astronomer, or astrophysicist. What I found was that astronomers spent most of their time crunching numbers and looking at data, watching the movement of pixels on screens, and very little time looking at the stars. As math was not my strong suit, I started looking into my back up plan: bar owner on a tropical beach.
Teaching is very much the same as astronomy in that the teaching part is probably the least time consuming part of what we do, but this I knew going into it. But the interacting with students, hoping to create that spark, or ignite the flame or (insert cliché here), was worth the rest of it. What I had not counted on was how much I would come to rely on all the other information I had learned throughout my life, completely unrelated to English and Literature. It turns out my dabbling in multiple interests, including but not limited to science, theater, psychology, obscure historical facts, martial arts, and meditation became not just random pieces of knowledge I could dole out occasionally, but essential to building context for my students when trying to relate a lesson.
What I also knew but didn’t truly understand was how much being a person of color, specifically being male and Hispanic, was so important. I knew on a academic level (ha) that representation was important, but as I never had a teacher who looked like me growing up, I didn’t understand. Today, according to the National Center of Education Statistics, only 9% of teachers are Hispanic, 7% are Black, and most of those teachers are located in urban areas. To this day, most Americans have not had a person of color as their teacher, or only one. I understand now. I understand just how important it is, on so many levels.
This was brought home this week when my students learned I was getting my COVID vaccine. Almost every student thought I was insane and couldn’t believe I was getting one. Almost every one of those students were Black or Hispanic. When I asked why, the reasons came down to they didn’t trust the scientists behind it, and they didn’t trust the government. They didn’t know what was in the vaccine, and wanted to wait until more people took it before they’d even take it. This is not an unusual take, my father feels much the same way and a lot of people I know do too. It’s an inherent distrust in the system.
Enter my interest in science and psychology. During those two days, I had multiple conversations about how the vaccine was developed, about how it works using RNA and reprogramming our antibodies, about how Latinx and Black people were not only underserved by medicine, but actively harmed by it and experimented on. We have a history, in this country, of using people of color for a lot of unsavory of uses, and there is a deep distrust of it. And that history is not far removed either, and the neglect continues currently.
By the end of the day, I had more than one student tell me they were going to talk to their parents about getting it. Because I was. Because I listened to them, because I taught them to think about the problem, and because I looked like them. They may not remember that day when we learned about how The Crucible was allegorical to McCarthyism and today’s political atmosphere, or the use of repetition, but I hope they remember when they learned how to think differently about their beliefs and question what they think they know. One of my favorite astrophysicists, Neil DeGrasse Tyson said, “The problem arises when irrational thought and attendant behavior fill the vacuum left by ignorance.”
I cannot imagine doing another job and getting that same satisfaction as this one. Yes it’s frustrating and it takes an emotional toll, but it is certainly like no other. It may be that someday public education may change enough that I won’t be able to actually teach anymore, so just in case I still practice my bartending skills and keep a weather eye on property values in the Caribbean.