The Epic Nevertheless, Starring You

Teaching in a pandemic: It’s not pretty, but it’s pretty epic. Reframe the school year and fight. Be the hero of your own epic, nevertheless.

by Adrin Fisher

Epics are my thing lately. Maybe it’s because I picked up a beautiful new paperback of The Odyssey translated by Fagles. Maybe it’s because my family has been loving Disney’s show The Mandalorian, the one with “Baby Yoda.” Maybe it’s because in many unexpected ways, fiction has become fact in 2020.

Epics are long, narrative poems that tell the story of a courageous, larger-than-life hero. The action takes us on a journey, the villains often have supernatural power, and the hero triumphs (mostly). There’s also a lot of talking involved.

My teacher-friends and I have talked and talked. Since the beginning of the pandemic, our emotions have been like cheap plastic kites jerked about in gale-force winds: disbelief, anger, sadness, cautious optimism, fear, exhaustion, hope, grief. Lots of us have settled somewhere in the area of resignation, our little kite selves bent and busted, but still fluttering. We’re not thinking of ourselves as particularly heroic.

In some ways, to a person born and bred in Appalachia, this feeling of resignation is home. When I introduce Beowulf to my seniors, I talk about the Anglo-Saxon worldview. Fatalism, I say. This conglomeration of conquering tribes believed that Fate ruled all. This, I say, is familiar. You know this. You’ve heard people say, “It is what it is.” You know the phrase, “What will be will be.”

Then we go to the epic. We hear Beowulf himself say, “Fate will unwind as it must,” and we remember the Fates fighting over their eyeball in that old Disney movie, Hercules. We remember reading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books. This we know.

We could talk about why fatalism is a cornerstone of the Appalachian ethos. We could point to it as a reason why education is not of primary value in many of our families. We could think about the vices our students start experiencing in middle school—the drinking, the vaping, the smoking. We could think about generational poverty and cycles of abuse and drugs and promiscuity and injustice and broken promises. We could mention it all. We could rake ourselves over the coals.

But we don’t. Others do that for us.

Instead, we talk about Abraham Lincoln, a fatalist through and through. We talk about underdogs. We talk about justice and paybacks. We talk about the strength it takes to live under the weight of fate.

We ask, why should we bother?

We ask, what drove Beowulf? That one’s easy: he wanted to be remembered for his actions. Beowulf voyaged across the sea. He fought a demon, weaponless. He swam to the bottom of a bottomless hot spring and killed a Water-Witch. He trekked to the mountains and slew a dragon.

We talk about strength, courage, generosity, right motives. We talk about resilience. Hope.

We, teacher-friend, are teaching through a pandemic. We are making history. It’s not pretty, but nevertheless, it’s pretty epic.

We’re navigating a patchwork of rules and regulations with unclear requirements and expectations about devices, broadband, virtual meetings, and student involvement. We’re choosing the essential. We’re protecting our people. We’re extinguishing fires. We’re dismembering demons and slaying dragons every day.

So, today, I’m asking you to fan that little flame of fatalism that may yet burn in your Appalachian heart-of-hearts. Use it as a reminder of your own strength, teacher-friend. Let’s accept the hand that’s been dealt. But let’s reframe our journey.

Let’s fight.

We’re not just fighting for ourselves. We’re fighting for our communities, our students—whether they know it or not—and we’re fighting for their futures. We’re fighting for our profession, our families, our colleagues, our work-life balance, and our sanity. We here in Appalachia have been fighting for a long, long time.

We have all lost in the past nine months, to be sure, but we are not losing. And neither are the kids. There will be pieces to pick up. There will be wounds that need healed. There will be grace given.

But—as we’ve learned from epics—heroes are never perfect, but they are always moving.  

You are the epic hero in your own story. Courage, dear heart.

Poem Credit: “Ulysses”

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you courage. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher, an Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award Winner, and a finalist for WV State Teacher of the Year. She teaches College English, AP Lit & Comp, and English 12 at Fairmont Senior High School. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

Back to School: The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

By Adrin Fisher

I have a confession to make.

Sometimes I walk through the school supplies aisle just to smell it.  It’s just the BEST.

I know, it’s odd.  School supplies are my vitamin D:  they strengthen my bones.  I love choosing from bins of highlighters, glue sticks, pencils, and pens.  Those fresh, smooth binders arranged by size and color, the stacks of perfectly neat spiral notebooks, the on-trend portfolio folders—oh, be still my heart!  The back-to-school aisle demonstrates the power to organize, to take charge.  I’m in love with the potential.  Those new supplies remind me of a full classroom—buzzing with kinetic energy just waiting to be unlocked.

But, school supplies are also my kryptonite.  The August sales mean one thing:  summer is done.  Gone are the days of reading purely for fun.  Gone are weekday pancakes, blueberry picking, 2 pm naps, floating-in-the-pool-without-a-care, midday dentist appointments.  Gone are endless descriptions of the nuances and history of favorite video games in the voluble chatter of my two middle-school-age sons.  Gone is the time for summer projects, the list partially finished.

But, I do love being back on a schedule.  I love the satisfaction of daily tasks accomplished, the time pressure which drives me to plan for my students’ best learning and my family’s best life.  I love creating and developing instruction.  I am not one to do the exact same thing year after year—like my high school biology teacher who simply unclipped old transparencies from her binders and ordered us to copy them; nor am I one to purchase prefab units—I’ve found through experience that I can’t do justice to a story or a novel or an assignment unless I’m invested in it.  I love being inspired and then working something out.  I love reflecting on what worked and why, and then tweaking the whole beautiful mess.

grading papers
Correcting essays points students toward growth, but takes time.

But, I know I will get bogged down.  Last August, I gave three diagnostics to each of 140 students—including a timed essay.  It was October before I got them all assessed.  The diagnostics got buried under regular classwork—summer projects, notes on each student, essay prewriting, Beowulf and “The Lottery” and the thousand other demands of everyday life in a high school.  Like most English teachers, I spend at least one weekend day (and many very early mornings) on school work.  Like most English teachers, I feel that it’s not enough.  Like most English teachers, I feel that it’s too much.  Sometimes I wish I had a job without homework.

But, I love my job.  Teaching is beautiful and meaningful and satisfying and it’s a whole lot of fun.  When I see former students out and about, they always ask, “Are you still at the high school?” “Yes,” I say, “of course! Where else would I be?”  I love my students:  the connections, the laughter, the discussions.  I love investing my life in their lives.  Every year I’ve impacted someone positively.  I know this because I hang on to every scrap of positivity and file it away for reflecting on the days when the “worst” creeps in.

My advice?  Embrace all the emotions that surge through the beginning of your school year—the joy, the anxiety, the anticipation.   Find ways to improve your work management.  Cultivate good habits.  Seek people who’ll encourage you and challenge you—but mostly encourage.  And create a scrapbook or a file folder for your “attagirl” or “attaboy” moments so that when your BEST job slides into a WORST moment, you can fight back with true facts.

positive note
Tangible reminders go a long way to reminding me of the BEST.

Because if teaching isn’t the best job out there,  I don’t know what is.

 

 

WVCTE is wondering about your back-to-school bests and worsts. How do you focus on the best? What advice can you offer your colleagues? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!