Yesterday, I took my students on a really cool field trip. They got to see a live band, which featured musicians that played steel guitar, normal guitar, upright jazz bass, trumpet, clarinet, washboard, and drumset. (The drummer had the double pedal skills to join a heavy metal band, but the musicality to tap out some bluegrass, as well.) They also got to go to a fancy theatre with a great sound system.
It was a really inspiring show for the kids, and they handled themselves wonderfully. There were several special needs students seated in front of us, many of whom were wheelchair bound. As the show started, some of those students made (uncontrollable) noises. The group behind us started rudely yelling, "Shut up!" But my kids sat there, quietly, not correcting and not making fun of anyone. They handled themselves. They were a terrific audience.
The band onstage encouraged them on to get a little rowdy in their seats, and my kids did so without causing any trouble. They were excited, and who could blame them?
However, as they were leaving, a much older woman serving as an usher that day rudely asked one of my star students (who was elected Band Captain by his peers two days later) to be be quiet, and then turned to me.
"I taught middle school for 27 years," she said. "Then I substituted at [name of my school], for one day only, and after that I quit teaching."
She looked at me, scowling as she said that. I responded as I often do when I'm uneasy, and said, "I'm sorry."
My husband tells me that I say "I'm sorry" too much, and I've been relatively successful over the last few years at shaking that habit. But I intended to say I was sorry to her. I just didn't get to finish my statement.
Had I the time, and not the responsibility to get my kids safely back to the buses, this is what I would have said to her.
"Ma'm, I'm sorry that students at my school made you give up on education. I'm sorry that students at my school, who are designated by the federal government as 85% of them living below the poverty level, didn't meet your standards of what a well-behaved student should be. I'm sorry that my students don't get to choose who their parents are, how they are raised, or what their families do when, for example, they depart the mountains of Guatemala and make it to Florida in order to make a better, safer life for themselves. I'm sorry that they don't always understand cultural norms. I'm sorry that some of them have parents who have to work 'round the clock to attempt to escape the generational poverty they've been subject to their whole lives. I'm sorry that some of my kids are stressed because, already at ages 11-14, they are taking on parental roles in their households.
In reality, it's not you I need to apologize to. It's them. I am sorry to them that we live in a society that does not fully fund its schools, causing us to scrape by to get what we need in our classrooms. I'm sorry that I'm stressed out because we don't have the materials to teach with all the time or that I have to beg for chaperones for a trip like this because their parents can't miss any work. I'm sorry that we can't go on more field trips because we don't have an activity bus at our school. I'm sorry that I can't do more for them, because I am often consumed with my job (& its interminable paperwork) and simultaneously feel as though I'm coming up short.
I'm sorry that we live in a state, in a country, that funds schools according to local property taxes, thus relegating community schools in low-income areas to a more difficult road ahead. I'm sorry that our governor signed a bill that will allow state funds to go to privately owned charter schools rather than to support what we do at our school. I'm sorry that we have to wait so long to get new instruments or to get instruments fixed, mostly because of money issues.
I'm sorry that we live in a world where people judge my students on their loudness, the quality of their clothes, or their races & ethnicities before realizing that they're just kids.
I do know that we're lucky, that not every school or district funds its music education programs at all. We're lucky because we do get so much support from my school administration and from my district, and for that I'm incredibly grateful. I know that not many local performing arts centers have the funds to offer virtually free tickets & free transportation to school groups to see amazing, eye-opening shows. Many other people, including myself, are working to hard to close the opportunity gap in education. Despite their disadvantages, not every kid has the opportunities my students have. I tell them that a lot. I do my best to ensure that they are grateful, and whether you witnessed that or not, my kids were incredibly grateful to be in that theatre that day. I saw them demonstrate that. So did the other chaperones who were there.
Regarding what I am sorry to you about, I am sorry that you can't see the unbelievable progress these kids have made. That you don't get to experience the joy they feel when they learn something new. The eyes that light up when a lightbulb blinks on inside their heads. I'm sorry that you don't get to watch the process of these kids learning. I'm sorry that you don't hear them say, in awe, 'How do you do that?!' when they see a new technique demonstrated, and see them practice imitating the technique that just amazed them so. I'm sorry you did not derive joy from seeing them enjoy music, as other audience members have commented to me that they did during previous trips. I'm sorry that you don't get to see how it takes five claps from me to get a group of 70 middle school kids immediately silent & listening to instructions. I'm sorry that you cannot appreciate that, because it's a thing of beauty.
I'm sorry that rather than get to know these amazing students, however they may appear to you at first sight, you wrote them off years ago. I'm sorry you've carried that burden and that blame for so many years, because it must have lessened the quality of your retired years. If that's the decision that you made, to resent a large group of kids because you had a badly behaved classroom one day (that you were clearly ill-equipped to deal with, even after 20+ years of teaching), then that's on you.
My life has been enhanced by getting to know my students, and by helping them to reach their potential. It's hard to watch those who do not reach their potential, but the ones whose hearts have caught fire while learning are more than worth the effort. I teach because I feel I need to, but I have been luckier than I could have imagined to experience the things that I've seen over the course of 11 years in the classroom. Bearing witness to my students' amazing journeys has been what's kept me going, despite a system that sometimes seems out to get all of us, students and teachers alike. I don't know that life will keep me at this wonderful school forever, but I am so grateful to have met these kids.
To you, dear usher, I will say that I'm sorry that you haven't experienced the same. I'm sorry that you misconstrued these kids to the point that you quit teaching. My students at my school are indeed the reason I keep teaching."