This month, I start my thirty-fifth year of teaching school, my thirteenth as Head at Laurel. Over the years, I have taught English and drama, mostly, with a fair number of College Guidance classes sprinkled in. I think back over Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Ethan Frome, Tess, The Scarlet Letter, Huck, Great Expectations, Beloved, Woman Warrior, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, a lot of Shakespeare, tons of poetry, more plays and the occasional short story and essay. My new Juniors and my Sophomores at Northfield Mount Hermon in my earliest years as a teacher were indulgent, kind. A few years later at Chapin, in drama, we began always in a circle spending time getting to know each other before jumping into acting exercises. Teaching is the place I know myself best; it is like oxygen. I love leading a school, but teaching is actually where I find myself on steadiest ground, understand my purpose and my role. For me, teaching has always been a sort of second-skin.
Until last year. Last year, I taught 9th grade English as I have for the past twelve years at Laurel—and my class met last period—every day. The girls were marvelous—full of curiosity and kind with one another—mostly. They were also fried after a long day. And their teacher was not so marvelous. Too often, I was cranky and fatigued, stressed after a day of managing the day-to-day life of the school. I fell behind in my correcting too often and felt inadequate. I loved being with them, but I didn’t feel like my best English-teacher self. Turns out, I’m not at my best at 2:30 and I found myself more curt, a little less elastic in my dealings with my girls. I discovered that I would benefit from a schedule that tumbled as much as the girls would. In the fall, when we were tackling Oedipus Rex, I had the fleeting thought that I might gouge out my own eyes if I had to teach this particular tragedy again—though I love it. And, in the midst of The Odyssey, I had to resist my strong impulse to yell at Odysseus, saying, “Get a compass and get the heck home to your wife and stop sleeping with everyone in a skirt on the way.” I don’t think it’s a great sign to want to berate the Epic Hero. I have loved teaching texts I know well, but there comes a point when one needs a change.
So, I decided to step back, take a year away from the English classroom. I’ll still teach drama in the spring when the little girls and I make a play together. And, a stint of maternity-subbing has come my way, so I’ll get to teach Lifeskills to some 9th graders in the winter. But, I am already feeling sorry for myself in an unbecoming way. No one exiled me. I exiled myself, so I wouldn’t be sour and cross. This year, I’ll be able to watch more classes around the building, be able to travel a bit more to raise money for this school I love so much, be able to write at night instead of making up assessments or grading essays. But as the first day came and went and I did not meet a new crop of girls—expectant, maybe a little nervous about having the Head as their English teacher until they realized how delighted I was to be on their journey with them. I’m hoping my self-imposed sabbatical will be good for me and for the school, but I can already tell you, I think I may have blown it. Perhaps I could have taught a different tragedy, found a different epic, taught at another hour of the day. But, perhaps I’ll feel all the more joyous next year when I’m setting up my grade book and meeting a new group of girls. What a privilege it is to teach.