Back to School

The Business of Hope

by Cynthia Carbone Ward

A certain slant of light hints of fall today, the store aisles stocked with summer wares are giving way to school supplies, and the kids all know what’s coming. But I am a teacher no longer, and for the first time in 13 years, there will be no back to school for me. This is easily said, but it is a fact that I have not yet fully processed: Teaching has defined my routines and shaped my life for such a long time, I can barely imagine what I will be feeling when it all begins without me.

As a teacher, I was a guest in many lives; it’s humbling to think back upon all the young faces that have looked up at me throughout the years. My very first class, when I was still student teaching, was comprised entirely of recent immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. They were brave kids with remarkable stories who came to school with a mixture of fear and eagerness. Together we crafted travel brochures about the states of their adopted U.S.A., listened to opera and composed ridiculous arias of our own, and taught each other patience and persistence. I still have a little booklet of poems they wrote with their brand-new English words, each a delicate and ephemeral moment in the attainment of a language, concrete and positive, lovely in their simplicity — poems about houses and dogs, mothers and good food, tangible things and familiar longings.

Until I started teaching, I did not know how much even the smallest giving can yield when offered to receptive hearts. Victor with the serious expression came in early every morning to water our flowers. Christian missed his grandfather and told me about the tiny paper boats they used to make and set to sail in muddy gutters after rain. Shy Perla always giggled when I reminded her to smile. And then there was Patricio Flores, a small boy who lived alone with his older brother and often had to pack up and move to someplace else. We exchanged letters for a little while; the last I heard he was in Oregon, but then I lost track of him.

I went on to other schools and different kinds of classrooms. There were ranch kids and valley kids; horse, surf, and skateboard kids; kids upon whom fortune smiled; and those who were destined for hard times. The approach of school always triggered in me a combination of excitement and apprehension, and the first day was preceded by at least one sleepless night, an annual syndrome that years of experience did nothing to abate. The students, too, were nervous on those opening days, watching me with earnest eyes, all of them wanting to please, unsure of what to expect, hoping for a good year. We were the same in these yearnings.

I remember one first day in particular. The previous academic year had been exceptionally discouraging, a year of conflict and nasty criticism, and I had begun to lose heart. Even summer had been gloomy, shrouded in a marine layer that wouldn’t leave. Milky veils clung to the coastal hills, and everything was damp and dismal and dormant, exactly like my spirits. I entered the classroom in that frame of mind, uncertain how to begin. My students were a rambunctious lot, bright and spirited kids, the majority of them boys. They looked at me with hopeful open faces, heartbreakingly ready for whatever adventure the new year might hold.

I opted to share a few stories, as I often did on the first day of school, focusing this time on childhood tales of my beloved brother Eddie. Eddie was a magician and a mentor to me. He taught me the names of all the dinosaurs, how to ride the rusty red two-wheeler he had found by someone’s garbage can, and, most miraculously, how to read — with his help, random marks began to organize themselves into meaningful shapes, and I too was transformed. It was when Eddie died of kidney disease that I decided to become a teacher. I simply wanted to do good deeds in his memory, to turn my love for him into something real and in so doing extend the impact of his life. I told the students about this because I wanted them to see that there are ways to turn sadness into hope, even if indirectly … and maybe to remind myself.

The bell rang and kids dispersed. That’s when I heard sobbing — one boy had stayed behind. He sat at his desk in the back of the classroom, head down, in tears. He was 11 years old, but he had felt my old, worn sorrow and took it on as his own. Thus did a sixth-grade child remind me that we are all inextricably connected, that love and loss are universal. I remembered again why I was a teacher.

I won’t be in the classroom this year, but September is still synonymous with start, and I’ll smile to myself when I see those yellow buses dispatched like tanks in a war against indifference. I will always align myself with those who defy cynicism and imagine possibility. Teaching is an act of faith, the business of hope, the planting of seeds that may or may not flower, but everything depends on believing that they might and acting as though they will.

Cynthia Carbone Ward is a former middle school teacher whose book for teachers (and parents) How Writers Grow: A Guide for Middle School Teachers has just been released by Heinemann Press.

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