Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Twenty-ninth Annual School Homecoming

On September 30, 2006, I witnessed a gathering of community like none I had ever seen: The Twenty-ninth Annual School Homecoming was held at CaCapon State park. Each year, former students of Mt. Wesley, Bath District, and Berkeley Springs High School meet on the last Sunday in September to enjoy lunch and to reminisce about their days as students.

I was honored to attend such an event and to be recognized by such a group; Morgan County’s teacher of the year is invited each year, but, as West Virginia Teacher of the Year, I was able to see just how many people were aware of and proud of me—I truly felt, witnessing the fellowship of a population of students and teachers, the support of the community in which I live. When I entered the building, Jay, one of the organizers, and her sister, Liz, immediately greeted me. Jay is a formidable woman, a former school librarian, with piercing dark eyes and an intense intelligence. Liz is fair haired and smiling, but equally sharp and a warm conversationalist; she was my escort for the entire afternoon, pinning a corsage to my sweater, showing me around, introducing me to guests, and generally making me feel very much at home.

The group gathered first to mingle in various parts of the lodge, drinking coffee and visiting with one another. As people were lined up to enter the dining room, I realized just how large the group was, and this came even clearer once we were seated. All the tables were filled in the very large room. The Class of 1956 sat at the head table, with 31 members in attendance. This year, they were guests of honor since 2006 marks their fiftieth anniversary; this was the first year they were invited to attend. The classes of 1946, 1936, and beyond were also recognized. Given that I graduated from high school only fourteen years ago, the idea of a fiftieth reunion is amazing to me. More amazing were the numbers of other classes represented, including two members of the class of 1928!

The meal was nice, standard fare for a buffet: salad, beef and chicken, potatoes, vegetables, rolls, coffee, and cake. The program was wonderful, including recitations by a member of the class of 1936, and introductions of the alumni of honor. When I was introduced and presented with an apple, the whole room applauded. Later, I walked to my car, stunned. I was touched to be recognized by such a community, awed to be in the presence of so many years of learning and experience. They are the legacy of education in Morgan County, evidencing its effect on generations past, and providing hope for the future.

The Aftermath

The morning after the banquet, I ran along the Kanawha in the pre-dawn breeze. I saw geese, a heron, and no other people. The realization of my new, more public identity began to sink in. So my fifteen minutes had arrived.

I returned to the hotel, showered, and met my parents for breakfast. They told me they had seen my interview on television, and they picked up two copies of the local paper, my face staring out from the page. The photographer caught me in the middle of speaking, mouth open. As we boarded the elevator to return to our room, a guy getting off it grabbed me by the arm: “Hey!” he shouted, “I just saw you on TV!” The drive to my parents’ house consisted of my father fiddling incessantly with the radio dial, searching for news coverage of the announcement. I finally gave up listening and crashed out on the backseat.

Immediately following the banquet, my principal had set the phone tree in motion, so everyone at my school would receive the news before morning. It was nice to see the lines of communication used for something besides weather emergencies and cancellations. As a result of this and the press coverage, there was a barrage of new messages in my e-mail congratulating me. I spent about forty minutes replying to them all. My voicemail was full of messages too, some from people whom I didn’t even know had my number. My ex left a message: he had heard my voice on the radio while he was sleeping, thought he was dreaming, and had gone back to sleep, only to wake up to the same voice speaking the same words an hour later. “Guess you answered the Miss America questions better than you thought,” he concluded.

When I arrived at school the next day, my colleagues had filled my classroom with confetti, balloons, and flowers. There was a huge candy bar on my desk—dark chocolate, my favorite—and a card from the rest of the English department. Inexplicably, I sat down at my desk and cried; I felt frightened and thankful, eager and afraid, all at the same time. I barely realized the kind of year that lay ahead; I had some serious learning to do.

My students posted a photograph from the local daily paper on the whiteboard. It was a photo that had been taken for an interview that covered the county announcement of Teacher of the Year and my selection as a finalist for state. It was an acceptable photo the first time it had been in the paper. The problem this time, as it was recycled for the state TOY coverage, was that it had been cropped to show only my face. No hair, no neck. I was not smiling; my face was shiny in the fluorescent lighting. Instead of looking serious, as I had in the complete picture, I looked like I was about to hit someone with a brick. My English 12 class thought it was hilarious: “Look!” they screamed, “you got arrested for DUI!” It was at that point that I knew I had to learn two things I hadn’t expected: to wear makeup, and to smile. I remembered learning that majorettes and models put Vaseline on their teeth to keep their smiles intact. Yuck. I didn’t want lubricated teeth, but I also didn’t want to become the poster child for the cranky English teacher stereotype. How much more did I not know?

The couple of weeks that followed the announcement were full of interviews, invitations, congratulations, impromptu conferences in the grocery store. One man jumped in front of my car so that he could congratulate me as I pulled out of the school parking lot. Once, while I was on a date, people kept stopping to congratulate me (my date knew I was a teacher, but didn’t know about the award); it was an awkward explanation. Two huge banners were hung on the front and back of the school building, and my students started calling me “state teacher of the universe.” I received cards, flowers, and candy from students, my peers, and from retired teachers. The president of my bank sent me a note, as did other community figures. I also received letters from my union representatives, from professional organizations, and from state senators and congress people. I had extensive interviews with reporters from different newspapers, and a significant amount of press coverage on the county and state websites.

My state support team promised me a work session in about a month, once the excitement had ebbed a little. I tried not to panic as I began to realize that I needed their help immediately—once things settled down, it might be too late; I might have already made a complete fool of myself. My life had changed, and I had to adapt in ways I had never anticipated.

The Events Leading Up...

The events leading up to my selection as West Virginia’s Teacher of the Year, 2007 could be described as uncertain and chaotic at best. At the end of the 2005-2006 school year, I had been selected as my school’s teacher of the year by my colleagues, which meant a lot to me. In the day to day life of a school, one’s colleagues see what happens in spite of appearances, so their selection of me was touching and sincere, a true acknowledgement of my hard work.

I did not know that selection at the school level would be followed by a fairly extensive amount of paperwork for eligibility at the county level. In the weeks that followed my school TOY announcement, I completed a series of essays elaborating on my teaching philosophy, my educational background, and my goals for my students and myself. When I was finished, I think I ended up with about ten pages of response to a series of about five questions, all geared toward the county selection team.

Soon, reports started to come back to me about my application documents. One colleague commented that someone on the selection team had told him that I was “head and shoulders above the rest.” Another colleague reported that my essay about how I became a teacher had moved someone else to tears. I shrugged these reports aside. I was inexperienced (in years if not in classroom know-how) and a fifth year teacher in my county. Besides, I had bigger things to worry about: I was going to Japan.

I had been chosen earlier in the spring as a 2006 Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund awardee. This meant that I would be traveling to Japan in June to attend workshops, visit schools, stay with a family, and explore the country. I would be joining 199 other American teachers for this journey on June 11, and I had a heck of a lot to do as that date approached. In addition to the obvious (packing), I had to have a physical, get shots, fill out a bevy of documents, and design a broad-ranging follow-on plan for classroom implementation of the knowledge I would gain while in Japan.

At the end of the first week of June, as I was frantically scrambling to finalize grades, to buy gifts for my hosts in Japan, to complete my follow-on report, to pack, and to stay semi-sane throughout it all, word came from the superintendent that I had been selected as Morgan County’s teacher of the year. Great news! In the Fall, on opening day of school, I would receive an award, money for my classroom, attendance at a conference or professional development of my choice, and the much coveted Teacher of the Year bench—an annual gift from Tom Seely Furniture, a local fine woodworks manufacturer. The bad news? The state level documents were due June 30, the day after my return from Japan.

Over the next few days, I forgot about sleeping. Instead, I set about revising my essays, scheduled a session with a photographer, collected three letters of reference, signed the appropriate forms and collected the other appropriate signatures, and impossibly popped the application documents—which totaled about 17 pages—into the mail the day before I left for Japan.

I boarded the plane on June 11, and was transformed by my experience. I didn’t think about the state application again until the first week of August, when a representative for the West Virginia Department of Education called to schedule an interview. I was one of eleven finalists. About a week later, I drove to Charleston, the state capital (a little over 200 miles away), and checked into my hotel room. My interview was scheduled for noon the next day, Friday, August 11, 2006. I called a good friend, and we went out for Mexican food. Fun led to more fun, margaritas led to more margaritas, and I returned to my hotel room a little later than I had planned. “Why worry?” I asked myself. “They won’t pick me.”

Too soon, I dragged myself from restless sleep, attempted to sweat it out at the hotel gym, choked down a plain bagel, a banana, and several cups of coffee, and headed to the beautiful capital complex to face the grilling of my life. I arrived too early, and I drank a diet cola in the cafeteria, reading and re-reading the speech I had prepared, and trying to settle my nerves. At ten before noon, headache under control, I forced myself to the elevator and rode to the personnel office. I wondered about all the people who were hoping for me to do well, counting on me to shine; although I would do my best, I knew that I had only the smallest chance of success. Besides, the accolades I’d received were already more than I’d expected—the reward I had already received was more than enough. I knew that the people who were with me every day appreciated me. What else is there, really?

I faced five panelists in what felt, to me, a grueling interview. It was all I could do to not respond to their questions with a blank-faced shrug. I didn’t know—I still don’t know—what we can do in public schools to compete with private schools; I’m not even sure we should compete with them. I don’t know what is the biggest problem we face in public education today; I know my classroom and my school, but I’m not sure there is one big problem that exists across the board. I answered as thoughtfully and as honestly as I could. I felt more and more lost each second. Maybe I did want this…

Then, I shared my prepared statement. I spoke about Japan, of course. While there, I experienced an earthquake, and it became a metaphor for me. I worked out a speech based on this idea—teaching and learning as seismic events in one’s life—and I was sure it was good. I am a strong reader and speaker, but I was nervous. When I finished, the faces of my interviewers were blank. “Thank you,” they said as I shook their hands, “see you at the banquet in September.”

I drove home, consoling myself. I blew it. I took off my blazer and threw my pumps into the backseat, driving in my bare feet, blaring the stereo. I didn’t even know I wanted it until the moment it was over. And I blew it. Nothing could be done now. Still, I would be OK, I told myself; whatever I had—my classroom that shouts thinking and individuality, my colleagues who like and respect me, my students who learn from and with me—was enough for me.

And So It Begins...

It is September 12, 2006. I arrive at my parents' house to pick them up. After two hours on the road myself, the three of us will drive an additional 170 miles to Charleston, our state capital, for the annual Teacher of the Year banquet. I have apprehensions about attending. I am a finalist, Morgan County's teacher of the year, one of eleven who made it through the written application process and an excruciating interview with a selection committee. I have spent a whirlwind summer traveling, learning, teaching, and building a significant amount of anxiety for this very event. I have mixed feelings about this: uncertainty in my own ability, frustration from what I feel was a botched interview, even a slight amount of indecision concerning whether teaching is actually something I want to do for the rest of my life... Tonight, the state teacher of the year will be announced, awarded, and celebrated, and I will be off the hook, free to return to normalcy.

As I walk in the door, my parents offer me a gift. It is a necklace, jade. It is a miniature Inuit symbol, called an inushuk: these are signposts, used to mark dogsled trails in Alaska. "So you don't lose your way," my mom says. Uh oh.

At the pre-dinner reception, I feel myself shaking, tense smile plastered on my face as I clutch my water glass. I am joined by my superintendent, Mr. Temple, and principal, Mr. Ward; their company, and that of my parents, makes me feel less alone. I speak with last year's winner, who is vibrant, dynamic, extroverted--so different from me. Dinner is simple, but good. Tension builds. The speech I have wadded in my pocket--just in case--crinkles every time I move. I feel silly, too young, too inexperienced. I want this to be over. NOW.

My friends at home are all pulling for me. I have told them not to unintentionally tempt fate: "Don't wish for me to be selected," I say, "wish for what's supposed to happen to happen." They look at me askance. They see how hard I work, believe in me so much. I think that it is community that created me as a teacher; my colleagues are like family, and we all work hard together. While I do feel that I am a good teacher, in a career well suited for me at this moment, I work with so many good teachers that I do not feel exceptional. We are all exceptional, and we have built a school around ourselves that reflects this drive toward excellence. Doesn't every school do this? How am I not like everyone else?

The lights dim. One by one, each county teacher is called to the stage to receive recognition. Not all 55 are here, but many are. Then, each finalist is called, and each receives a plaque. When it is my turn, I cross the stage, handshaking and smiling. I return to my seat, relieved I have not fallen over something. Now I'm done.

Or not. When the announcement comes, I look at my mother, and her face is inexpressibly joyful. Mr. Ward bangs his fists on the table. My dad is calm--his normal Zen self. Mr. Temple, I can tell, is not surprised. I stand, stunned, focus on one foot in front of the other, make my way to the stage for a second time this night. I pose for photos, accept accolades, present my speech without a stutter. I speak to reporters from TV, radio, newspapers. I am smiling on the outside, and inside terrified. So begins my year as West Virginia's Teacher of the Year, 2007.