“I am the teacher of athletes,” says Walt Whitman.
And then the great American poet comes swinging with the gut punch that makes kids’ growing up so hard on parents and teachers: “He most honors my style,” he says, “who learns under it to destroy the teacher.”
As a parent of boys now muscling up mind and body at ages 14 and 12, and having spent so many hours as a reporter visiting with teachers and so many hours watching them in their classrooms, it is clear to me: This is a frightening and imperfect life’s work.
We’re all trying to dispatch vigorous free thinkers who don’t need us anymore. And it’s damn hard.
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I recently spent time with Kansas City parents on both ends of the chain — some who were touring schools agonizing over where to launch their kindergartners, and some looking back at the maze they ran through districts and charter schools.
Parent Eloria Walker spoke for everyone when she summed up some two decades of wrestling with schools, saying simply, “I’m tired.”
Kansas teachers who told of the joys and hardships of their work amid the stress of the state’s budget and ideological battles know the stakes are high.
“We expect to be held accountable,” Shawnee Mission middle school teacher Kelly Anderson said.
Yes, we the people want to know our teachers are teaching our children well. Yes, we want the aching institutional structure to efficiently fuel their enterprise. And, c’mon, keep ahead of the digital revolutions and send them into the global horizon equipped.
We parents and teachers are “the bows from which,” poet Kahlil Gibran says, our children “as living arrows are sent forth.” And we bend them with all our might, but have to let them loose from our grip.
These teachers said they love their work. Sometimes that child they hope to aim still shudders under the echoes of parents splitting into divorce, said Dave Kissack, a former Shawnee Mission teacher now teaching in Iowa.
Sometimes, as happened with one of his students, that child coming to class spent the night sleeping on a playground.
They have to answer for those children who struggle, “but we survive,” Kissack said. “Teachers are going to survive.”
We’re all in this together, hoping to share Whitman’s blessing.
“Long have you timidly waded, holding a plank by the shore,” he says as a parent to a child, as a teacher to a student. “Now I will you to be a bold swimmer, to jump off in the midst of the sea and rise again and nod to me and shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.”