Thursday, March 8, 2012

Under the Sakura

Each school-year that I've spent at CAJ has had its own unique feel... and it always seems to go by school-year, not calendar year. The difference between June 2009 and August 2009, June 2010 and August 2010, etc. is only two months of real-time, but so much changes from year to year. I'm sure I'll talk about my first year of teaching some other time, but for now, I want to focus on my second full year: 2010-2011. This was a school-year that I will never forget. It was chaotic and deeply traumatic on an individual, communal and national level. Still, despite the tragedies that contributed to chaos and grief, that school-year is, for me, characterized by an overwhelming feeling of peace and belonging. These feelings, which are still so powerful to recall, came from my identity as a teacher, particularly for my Humanities class. I was amazed when, about a month into the school year, I began to hear from various students that I had captured their imagination with my lessons and activities, made them care about learning and inspired them to do their best. Many in Humanities even said that our class felt like a family and that they looked forward to 2nd and 3rd period each day. I looked forward to those periods, too, and in hindsight realize that even as I tried to live in those wonderful moments, I still took them too much for granted.

One of my most peaceful memories that I have from the course of my entire life so far was watching my 2010-2011 Humanities class write Haiku while sitting at the picnic tables underneath the Sakura blossoms during our class-time in the first week of April. It was our first week back to school since Mar. 11, and we were in need of the routine, to be sure, but also (and more importantly) in need of care, encouragement and peace. Those two hours of class became the most important part of my day, and I can say with confidence that they were also very important to most of my students. At the time, I sometimes worried that I was not making up enough lost ground after the earthquake, that I was not putting a rigorous enough curriculum before the students. I know now that I struck exactly the right balance--we moved forward, kept learning, kept working... but more importantly, we actively took the time to support and talk to each other and together we processed the earthquake. It wasn't like group therapy--we still spent most of our time working hard, but at the same time, we weren't afraid to stop for a breather or to set a milder pace when we needed to. The students always did whatever task I asked them to, willingly and eagerly, with no complaining. The fact that they trusted me so much means more to me now than it did then, and I think is partly responsible for my own personal growth and recovery after the chaos of March. I'll still never forget the pain in my students' eyes and the pain that I felt when I absentmindedly started taking down posters from the classroom walls during the last week of school. My students were working on a project, and as I walked around to observe progress, I had started to pull the sticky tack off of a poster in the back of the room. One student noticed and pointed it out to the rest, who pleaded with me not to take down the posters just yet: "Mr. Gibson, if you take the posters down, then it's just a classroom and it's not our classroom." Another student commented that it felt like a piece of them was being ripped up with the posters and asked that I wait to clean up the room until after everyone was gone.

My heart has never felt quite so full as it did on our very last day of class last year: my students had contrived to keep me out of my classroom by arranging for the principal to ask me questions about the exam schedule. When I finally came into the room, my students had arranged cupcakes to say "We love you, Gibby" and "Trololololololo" across the desks at the front of the room. They gave me a scrapbook of quotes, messages, vocab words and inside jokes from the year, and a class photo in a home-made Calvin and Hobbes frame. The students said that I had been a blessing to them but in that moment, I felt like there was absolutely no way I could have blessed them more than they blessed me. I was Mr. Gibson. I was "Gibby". I will, as long as I live, remember that school-year, but not primarily for the natural disaster and losses. I will remember and cherish my classes, my students, my opportunity to grow into my identity as a teacher. I sincerely hope that group knows just how much I valued them (and still do).

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