I’m a natural explorer who wanders pretty far from home. I can’t help it. There’s a hunger in me that’s only satisfied when there are new tracks made in fresh snow. I’m not afraid of the unknown, of the distance. At least not enough to make me stay put.
Some people are afraid to go at all. But for me, the going isn’t the problem. It’s what I find when I get there. Unfazed by new territory, it’s new people that really freak me out.
I am surrounded by strangers. Hundreds–literally hundreds–of new people in my daily life since August, and no time to learn one from another. The people who anchored my work days for the last two and a half years are at my old job, where I left them. And the intensity of the work here means I spend less time with the local family I’ve come to know well and deeply love.
This new landscape is lovely, but suddenly I realize who I’m with.
The people here are nice, but they are all strangers.
All my students are new. Of course that happens with a new school year, but that fact doesn’t remove the trepidation when I have to engage them. Or discipline them.
They’re going to ask me something I can’t answer. They’ll think I’m lame. They’ll repudiate my instruction and reject my attempts to love them through teaching. They’ll reject me.
They’ll spotlight all my mistakes and shortcomings and I’ll have to face ones I didn’t even know I had. I’ll get something wrong or cross a line, and the students will tell parents and there will be phone calls. To my bosses. A fate worse than death. And then everyone, EVERYONE, will know that I don’t know what I’m doing.
I keep thinking about sharks. There’s the advice they always give to new teachers: “Don’t bleed in the water. Sharks can smell it from miles away.” Don’t let them see your fear.
Right. Got it. So I go in bold and brash, making it rain detentions and then wondering why I hit one brick wall after another. I’m not getting through.
Another piece of solid, new-teacher advice:
“Don’t limp in the jungle.” Don’t let anyone know your weakness.
Right. Makes sense. I saw on TV it’s not a good idea to move slowly across the Serengeti, either.
So I run fast. I keep moving all the time.
When they ask how you are, say “fine, thanks, and you?”–regardless of the truth. Those class problems that happen behind closed doors? You just have to live with them. You’re on your own.
Then there is that weird notion we purport with grown women about snakes, spiders, and even sharks: “They’re more afraid of you then you are them.”
That’s nuts. I never believed that was true.
Especially with the sharks.
So I bind my own wounds; cover them up. Keep running.
And I sure as hell don’t go swimming without a cage.
Maybe this year, The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week will feature a show called The Shark Whisperer. Then I’ll have what I need to relate to the strangers in this new place.
Because, clearly Jess, it’s the cage you climbed into that helps you bond with the shark.
And surely all I need is more time at the circus to know how to tame lions.
Lions? Sharks? Snakes? Spiders? Really?
Did I mention all of these people are actually really kind? That I have great students–with whom I laugh a lot? That these precious days are littered with a beautiful mess?
The trees in the campus corridors shed their leaves in the halls as we all shed our skins in class. Did I tell you that’s where the mess came from?
And we crunch through it all, all day long, in class and out of it.
Did I disclose that these alien coworkers have bent over backwards to supply me and assure me and even pray for me?
It’s time to wonder:
What kind of lunatic gets her survival tips for the koi pond and the petting zoo from the Discovery Channel?
I come back to one of my favorite passages by Annie Dillard:
I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating, too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections, but overwhelmingly in spite of them, under the wind-rent clouds, upstream and down.
Wandering. A splintered wreck. Bloodied and scarred creatures. Done my share of eating.
We had a speaker on campus this week talk about the counterintuitive power of vulnerability. A Marin native, she shined a light on the competition and hostility of the local high school world and the overall life in Marin. She named the pressure to be “perfect”.
I smugly sat there as I mentally rattled of all the bible verses I knew that verified that truth:
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt. 5:5)
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Cor 12:9)
I felt so pleased with myself about how much I had learned to embrace that. I thought of all the people I had in my church family that I was able to love when my walls came down. I thought about the way I blasted into this new church family and how I had to repent of shoving everyone away until they were at arms’ length. I learned that behavior actually hurt the people I wanted to love, and that self-protection is actually the best-worst offense. I sat there, thanking God that He and they had forgiven me for my former folly of making enemies out of strangers.
And then the assembly dismissed and I ran into a Theology teacher I haven’t seen in a couple weeks. I really appreciate this guy. So when he greeted me and asked how I was, you know what I said?
“Fine, thanks. You?”