I had a dream many years ago. I was looking up a south face, sloping hillside. I stopped to take it in. When I turned 180 degrees, I saw the sun beginning to set over cascading hills and mountains with a river at its base.
And now I was literally standing on the land of my dream. I was filled with Intense delight, excitement, shock, and gratefulness. Part of me was doubting that this was all real. It was for sale, and I had the cash. Less than an hour later, I was sitting in the real estate office making an offer with official people writing up official things. I had a moment to reflect. My dream had come true. I knew this land was my home. And then I flashed back to where this cycle had started. I knew I wouldn’t be here unless I had found what I thought was “The Dream Job.”
I was sitting in a principal’s badly lit office at a school for at-risk teens. He smiled, looked me in the eye, and told me I was hired. He added, “I want you to teach your passion.” It was the ‘90s.
The school had a reputation for attracting failures and dropouts. What most people missed was what mattered most to me. This school treated the students with respect. Everyone was valued for themselves. Being yourself, what made you feel comfortable in your skin, was actually celebrated. We taught students and ourselves to express feelings and to take responsibility for their actions. Although this isn’t rocket science, having an entire staff acting in unison around these values is not normal–especially when the population were considered by many as academic discards.
Walking out of that office, I realized that I could create any curriculum as long as it could be tied to English. In essence, I’d been given the teacher’s version of the Holy Grail. I had the opportunity to provide reading, writing, and communication skills for those in need while individualizing the curriculum to spark their joy of learning–long ago abandoned.
I signed up to teach the summer school as I needed the money. These students were behind in their English credits. Keeping them focused every day for four hours over five weeks,or almost 100 hours, was going to be a challenge. As I was walking towards my first class armed with plans to teach my passion, I felt confident and ready.
I opened the door. The students were already assembled. Some were standing up, others sat on their desks. A few were seated.
“Teach me fucking something!”
“Look at the newbie! Bet he won’t last the day!”
“Ooh wee! New meat!
“I need to go to the bathroom—and we don’t have to ask.”
“You have a fucking problem with cursing?”
Instantly, all my good will and self-congratulatory thoughts were drained from me. If I wasn’t able to credibly counter their anger, everyone would know that I had no control of the room. Teaching this class would be near impossible or certainly a hellish experience. My first words would make or break me. If I could turn this situation around, we all might succeed. But, realistically, how? I felt like I walked into a trap. Arguments inside my mind erupted. On one side I heard, “I don’t need this. I’m out the door.” On the other, “I need to feed my six-year-old son. I’m not going anywhere.” I quickly realized this exercise in self pity was valueless and destructive. My only shot to turn this around was to fully focus on the immediate crisis.
I received a break when they continued to rant at me or about the unfairness of life. The extra minute gave me time to calm myself. I now had the capability to weigh possible courses of action. Yet, after weighing my choices, I realized there was little chance to win this most important battle for captaincy of this ship.
Then the only young woman in class shouted in a thick Eastern European accent: “Where did you fucking come from?” With dramatic pause, she waited a couple of beats, “Go back!”
After the laughter, the class fell silent. That last insult was the catalyst. The inadequacy of responding either with fear or rationality disappeared. I just reacted without thought. I met every curse word of theirs and doubled down. A tsunami of swear words, invectives, and cusses poured out of me. Even the observer in me was startled. Since I knew I’d be fired anyway, I admit that I started enjoying it—even threw in a few made-up curse words.
As my tirade progressed, jaws dropped into frozen positions. By the times I finished, a nuclear winter had descended on that room. They clearly understood that their anger and words had no power over me.
It was just one victory-–but a most important one. I struggled for the next four hours to keep their attention. My planned lesson was inadequate. I’d need to make a curriculum adjustment to deal properly with these hurt, unappreciated, nasty young ones. Would there be another barrage? It never happened.
Within days this job became the dream that I had hoped it to be. I had the students’ respect and we engaged in the high interest curriculum. Oh, and the cursing was rarely heard. There was no one there who needed to be “impressed.”
Was I just lucky that day, or was I working a system that I had been trained for?
And what was the connection to the “dream” job and my current dream come true?