Teaching is a thankless profession. Fatherhood has made me a softy.
Both of these realities came colliding together yesterday as I said goodbye to some of the most beautiful young people I have ever known, and who, through their kindness and craziness, have saved me from the professional abyss. It was not always a smooth ride, these last two years with my grade 12s on Colombia, but it was a time in my life that I will look back on fondly for the rest of my life. The special moments I shared with many of these young men and women yesterday will be what I think of in particular as I move forward and experience my future lows in this profession that is full of amazing highs, and incapacitating soul sucking lows. To the class of 2019 at Colegio Canadiense, you saved me. I will live to teach another day, thank you.
When I arrived in Colombia in July 2017, it was fresh off of a very dark time in my professional, and by extension personal life, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I wanted to quit teaching despite mostly positive memories in the profession, and several amazing moments over the years like the avalanche of moments I am about to describe. Not many people know about this time in my life, it is not a time I am proud of, and I am still feeling so much guilt for the way I made my family suffer during this time. I will not say much more about it for these same reasons. I want to instead reflect on the unexpected onslaught of emotions I felt yesterday.
The thing about teaching is, you can put up with so much shit thrown at you from all directions: rowdy rude disrespectful students who have this inane ability to insult you in a such a way, that it cuts you to the core, and you start to believe: “wow, I really am sub-human here”. There are also: agitated parents, toxic workspaces/co-workers, overbearing administration, a seemingly endless supply of marking (the marking will one day actually drive me from this profession!), but all it takes is one tiny meaningful sentence uttered to you when you are at your lowest point, or a facebook message, email, card, note... and it is all worth it. The angry words, the tears, the contemplation of career choice, all undone with simple gestures. These moments are only surpassed by the love I have for my wife, children and family. Yesterday I was overwhelmed by countless such moments in a way I have never experienced as a professional.
I am writing this in an emotional state that will not last, and I know that time cures all. One of the great tragedies of life really. You have the lowest lows and the highest highs all killed by time. I have cynically remarked to students and colleagues in the past “ in three years time, it will be like we/I never existed. You will move on and go to university, job, family, etc. and your teachers will be forgotten.” I am sad to say, I cannot recall the name of every single student I have ever taught, goodness knows where that will leave me in ten years time as my memory seriously starts failing. Now thoug, I am trying to be less of a dick, and think more positively. Savour meaningful moments, because that is what life should be about.
Some context for you as I reflect on the day and years that were. I have been teaching the kids I refer to here for two years, not a long time, but the time was impactful. I was warned when I took the job, “watch out for those grade 11s, they are a handful, make sure you are really stern with them.” And I was. This approach does not translate in Colombia. Their sense of urgency in doing anything, getting to class, handing things in, doing what they were supposed to do in class, was alarming. It was amazing how a lesson planned for 60 minutes could drag on for a week, because there was precious little I could do to overcome the pace of Colombian student life. I remember early in my time with these guys a student, Jose-Daniel, told me “ tranquillo, profe” chill out as I was berating him for nonchalantly swaggering up to class 15 minutes late, again, for what seemed like the tenth day in a row.
I was never more close to murdering a student than I was in that moment.
In Canada we are taught come in hard, and you can relax later, reverse that and you are finished. Needless to say Jose-Daniel and I were not fast friends. I felt this feeling was more than mutual with many of these guys and girls, and I started to think I had made a huge mistake in coming here.
This was culture shock to an extent, I had zero Spanish, (I now have 2% Spanish!) and just general adjustment to the pace and vibrancy of life in Colombia was a challenge. The “organisation” of certain things at the school also made life unnecessarily challenging. As that first year dragged on, the grade 11s started endearing themselves to me, and I dare say for some at least, the feeling might even have been mutual. I taught two sections of these kids, and each section would seem to take turns driving me crazy with their apparent apathy and whininess, just as one group was engaged and motivated, the other group would be zoo-like and anarchistic. I don’t think I ever had both groups in the same state the whole two years I had them.
As grade 12 began, I waited for the crazy kids we had been warned about in grade 10 to arrive. The first group of grade 12s I had in Colombia were sold to us upon arrival as angelic, and the most beautiful people ever, but in their final year had let go of 12 years of good behaviour and were far from angelic. The class of 2019 never quite reached that status, and for the previously angelic class of 2020 coming up behind them, the rebellion started early, to the point I think exiting now seems a good plan! In my seond year, I was able to be a more relaxed teacher and was able to thoroughly enjoy getting to know all 45 of these guys and girls as people. We still had our ups and downs, and I connected with some more than others as you do, but yesterday it all of this attachment that I didn’t realise we had came pouring out in many special ways that I have not previously experienced.
The last day of school is crazy, and the chance for a meaningful goodbye speech was limited. I had thought of individual thoughts for every student and composed them in my mind, but as I burst into the 12c homeroom as the last exam was about to start and looked around the room at the anticipatory faces and caught a few of them by the eye as I uttered something along the lines of “I will miss you, and it has been a pleasure to be your teacher…” I lost control, and could not compose my speech. But somehow managed something of a farewell, accepted the polite applause, noted a few tears, but then had to dash down the hall to 12B, for whom by now I had even less time. They were still in full goodbye mode with their homeroom teacher, and I bumped into my colleague Athena in the hall, just outside and I could barely choke out the “I just came to say goodbye”, before I teared up recanting my 12C experience. After some comforting words, she said, “you better get in there, they are ready to start the exam!” It was true, and two students were already heading out the door for their last ever classes. So in I went, not sure what to say, but knowing I needed to be quick. I don’t remember what I said, it was less than I said in the first speech, but the reaction from the students was something I will never forget (especially given that I feel I had overall a more positive relationship with the 12C class). Every single one of them, many in tears came up and gave me a hug, even Pablo, who I crapped on, on an almost daily basis for being a nuisance in class.
What a hectic and emotional day. The next class was my last ever, with some of the grade 12s. I would only see 15 of them for the last time. I wanted it to be meaningful, but failed in this regard. Luckily my students more than made up for my poor planning. They had one final assignment to complete for me, but Manuela offered me a reality check, Paisa student style.
“Marshall, (Colombian students are on a first name basis with their teachers, that took some adjustment) I could do this last thing, or I could take the time to write letters to teachers, and say goodbye properly. Mar-shall, it is our last day!” Who could argue with such logic.
Not long after this I was interrupted by a student in the hall for whom I had been a confidante, as he dealt with some difficult personal issues. He had also written a note and given all of the teachers a gift as token of his appreciation, but in this moment he also expressed how important my friendship and support had been during that time for him. I tried to make sure I said an individual goodbye to everyone I taught, but was seriously floored at the extent to which individual students singled me out wherever I was to make sure I knew what an impact I had on them.
“Marshall, I/we have some words for you...” Oh those words!
About how one girl, who hated English, but wanted to be sure I knew that she didn’t hate me, (this was repeated by several students throughout the day) and that I was her favourite. One who very stoically said goodbye, and said that I was more like a friend who had helped her find her way, but was also ashamed of her English and wanted to express more specifically what she meant in a letter that was expressly not meant to be read in her presence.
This letter is one of the most beautiful things a student has ever written for me, and is now something I will keep to look on repeatedly as I experience many more lows in the trenches, that can be high school classrooms.
Another, who announced himself as my favourite student, and then very succinctly outlined the ways that I was awesome, but that he too was the most awesome, and thereby my favourite, student. He was even more awesome, he pointed out, than his female classmate who had also come to say goodbye, and who also made an impassioned exhortation of thanks, when she was composed enough to do so. Another two, who addressed me individually, but also took me by complete shock. One as emotional as I had ever seen a male student, was almost as bad as I had been earlier trying to get his words out. The depth of his heartfelt thanks is burned into my psyche like few other moments in my teaching career, and his friend, who had a list of apologies accompanied by reasons why he appreciated me.
Two boys, one who was singling me out for a second time each separately thanking me for being a really good teacher who made him think critically, even though it had been difficult. One female student, who asked if I was going to continue to teach, and that I should, because I had been a great teacher. This one had been a surprise, as I was sure this particular individual was firmly in the Marshall sucks camp. And, another girl, whom I passed earlier, and who had said my name, but then burst into tears, now took the time to have some private words amid the final class group goodbye session before they embarked upon the tradition of physically leaving the school by driving off the campus in grand fashion. She was thankful that I had brought her closer to another student by a remark I had made about their similar appearance, as it had created one of the most meaningful friendships for her, and how my perspective on life and how I had challenged her to think about things differently, and how the way I was raising my family had been an inspiration to her This new friend joined in at the end and reaffirmed as much, we all had a bit of a cry, group hug, and then they were off on the grand farewell.
There were so many special moments on this day, I know I have not remembered them all, and if any of the people alluded to in this sermon feel I forgot them, I am sorry. Just know that all of you will have a special place in my heart, as I said before, you saved me, and I am eternally grateful. So, to Maria, Alejandro, Valentina, Juan Esteban, Juan Pablo, Sofia, Juan Camilo, Camilo, Camila, Manuela, Juanita, Sara, Isabela, Laura, Paula, Pablo, Said, Santiago, Esteban, Paula Andrea, Maria Paula, Sofia, Susana, Susana, Kathrinn, Alejandro, Daniel, Jhonatan, Samuel, Jacki, Andres, Juan Jose, Daniela, Mariana, Jacob, Jose Daniel, Simon, Mariana, Susana, Manuela, Pablo, Isabel, Andrea, Nicolas and Paulina - you will be missed, thanks for everything!
When we left Canada all those years ago, we did not set out with any sort of social agenda. We simply wanted to see the world and expose our girls to culture and help them to see that there is a world beyond their own backyard. Along the way though, you see and experience things that have an impact on you, and your perception of the world changes in a way that following the news of the day does not prepare you for. When confronted with the tragic reality of human existence, it gives you pause and makes you see life in a new light. This is such a moment. Today I want to tell the story of being confronted face to face with people escaping the very real social and economic tragedy that is happening in Venezuela right now.
I once wrote that I would reflect more on my professional life in Colombia. That hasn’t happened, because: life. My new year’s resolution has been to write more each of the last three years, and each year starts out with a strong January, and then by March the casual observer may think me dead. Sometimes writing does not come so easy, more often than not of late, I think due to lack of practice and this unsettles me, but I expect it is what all writer’s and hack writers like me, experience.
Happily married to my beautiful wife Stephanie, and proud father of three beautiful girls, Aurora, Brynn and Clara. Master student, working in South America as a Social and English teacher: writing when I find time.