I've been thinking a lot about light lately- literal light and people who have lit my way through life. Yesterday, on August 21, we experienced a total solar eclipse, which was really pretty amazing.
At 2:46 p.m., the street got really dark and the streetlights went on...it felt like night in the middle of the day, and then the sun came back, the light came back, and life went on.
We watched on our cul de sac with your uncle Lee and Aunt Maggie; you were, however, taking a nap. Even if you hadn't been napping, I wasn't sure that you would understand what was going on, the importance of keeping your glasses on, etc...I'm very sad that you missed this one and have already decided to take you wherever you can see the total eclipse in 2024. (I'm writing it in this blog as a contract with you!).
I did want to write about how uncanny, how unnatural it felt to have such a bright light extinguished so suddenly. That and the beginning of the school year have made me think of my two teaching heroes, both bright lights who passed way too soon. I know that sounds clichéd, but I can't think of any other way to describe them. Both of them had these amazing smiles that, to use another cliché, lit up the room.
When I went in to school today to finalize my syllabi, and before I go to bed tonight, I'll look at each of their pictures, for they each taught me so much about teaching, about life. When I look at this picture of Conseula Francis, I think about her great relationship with students, are ability to be fully real, her awesome ability to make everyone and anyone feel at ease.
I'll never forget the breakfast I had with her at Jack's Cafe during my job interview, and how she immediately took me into her confidence about her daughter Francis and some of the challenges she had living in Charleston as a black woman.
She taught me to say black, not African-American.
She taught me that it's okay to be utterly silly sometimes, to wear funky shoes, to read and enjoy romance novels, and to fully geek out in front of my students.
She also had a ferocious intellect and fought hard for what she believed in, which is probably why she was such good friends with my other role model, Alison Piepmeier.
I met Alison a bit later, as she was actually on maternity leave (I think) when I came to interview. I was initially intimidated by her, but I learned that Alison was one of those rare people who really paid attention, fully, to what was going on around her. If she was working, she was working.
If she was listening to me, she was really listening, 100%, not thinking about something else.
And if she was teaching, she was there, fully present for her students.
It's actually hard to be fully present when teaching, especially when you're doing it for hours on end and thinking about what you want to accomplish. The trick, I learned from her, is to not focus on what you want as much as on what your students want.
Perhaps both Alison and Conseula were such great teachers because they were such great moms, although I'm sure that's not the kind of feminist statement either would endorse. What I mean by this is that I've learned to try and always put your needs above mine, and I try to do explain things in a way that you, as a unique individual, will understand. Conseula treated both of her children, Francis and Kate, as unique, as important, as people with opinions, not (even when they were really young) as "just kids." Alison's parenting of Maybelle, something she made public through articles in the Charleston City Paper and on her blog, was similar. Maybelle, like you, has Down Syndrome, but Alison focused, always, on her strengths, on her possibilities, on her abilities, and on including her in "regular" classrooms. She is the reason you are in Stiles Point, in first grade with "typical" classmates, today.
Both of these lights were extinguished too early, and, when they passed, I remember having a feeling similar to the uncanniness of dark at 2:46. I wish it had been just like the eclipse, a brief moment of weirdness before the lights came on again, but, sadly, it wasn't.
So we content ourselves with shards of light, pieces of hope. The lessons I learned from them about teaching, about parenting. The books they wrote, Conseula's about Octavia Butler and Alison's many books, one of which I am now reading (about female magazine editors in nineteenth-century America). About being present, being funny, and, most of all, being myself.
As I being the 2017-2018 school year, I will think of all of these lessons often. I keep a picture of both of them on my desktop so that, when I'm feeling like I want to quit my job, when potty training you seems remarkably frustrating, when I feel like I'm not a good enough scholar, teacher, or mother, I think of them...and their light lives on.