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Give and Take

Prints can be purchased on Etsy here.

I started this post almost a month ago on the first day of the first real vacation I’d had in over a year and a half. It was a gift of time from my new employer — a recognition of the weighty work to come as a middle-aged, career-changing English and Special Ed teacher at a residential school for kids with complex trauma and other disabilities.

My own teen years were marked by a smattering of unsuccessful suicide attempts resulting from undiagnosed bipolar disorder.  I was 15 or 16 before, thanks to a poorly-planned school assembly, I realized that everyone else in the world does not think about suicide at least once a day.

An official diagnosis of manic depression came several years later after my aunt, also a special educator, suggested the possibility. It took even longer to learn how to channel depression and mania into writing and, later, painting. Embracing creativity with the encouragement of mentors and friends, however late, pushed me to pay it forward.

Now, self-medicating with creativity is second-nature, so it was a happy accident that, as a graduation present, the kids and the Big Guy gifted me with an electric blue journal emblazoned in gold with the words, “I’m a teacher, what’s your superpower?” As the big day approached, I thought I would turn to it and to my blog every evening after school, but there were turning points ahead.

The first official day of teaching started uneventfully with reviews of classroom expectations and the summer school agenda. That night, a sense of fulfillment kept me planning lessons until almost midnight, and the blue journal stayed closed on the nightstand.

As the weeks progressed, the real challenges fully emerged. For our students, trauma is a concrete wall between them and their educations. One student may spend classes with her head on her desk. Another may not join the class at all, while others may act out with language that, in ‘regular’ school, would and has gotten them suspended indefinitely. The goal at our school is to get kids around that wall by keeping the classroom door open and engaging them in any way that their psyches can tolerate at that moment.

The last 4 weeks have been a roller-coaster adventure in real-time differentiating for the special needs of those students. In one period it’s meant doing a class read-aloud instead of assigning a book. In another class, it’s meant finding reading material to which withdrawn students can relate emotionally. In every class, the goal is to get heads off desks and kids back into class long enough to start having small successes.

And, at night, the adventure has meant creating a better graphic organizer for one set of students or making worksheets for a new book that has helped get a long-absent kid back into the classroom. It’s meant staying up late working on material for bulletin boards that shout, “You Matter” at the students in one way or another.

And it’s meant that the blue journal has stayed closed.

Last night, the Big Guy, Thing2 and I went to see Yesterday, a movie about an almost-washed up musician named Jack. Jack wakes up after an accident caused by a world-wide power blip that has erased the memory of the Beatles from everyone but his and two other non-musician’s minds. Jack begins recording Beatles songs and, of course, becomes an overnight success. I won’t reveal the ending except to say that there is a lovely ‘What if all you need really is love?” moment that challenges our ideas about success and had me and the Big Guy bawling.

There was also a moment that almost had me yelling, “Bullshit!” at the screen.

Near the end of the movie, the main character has a crisis of conscience (he’s passing off others’ art as his own, after all) and flashes back to a moment of doubt when he considered giving up music and going back to teaching full-time. In the flashback, Ellie, his best friend, manager and only fan, assures him he does have the talent to succeed at music. She also warns him, “If you go back to teaching, all your creative energy will go into that, and you won’t have time to make the music (art) you’re meant to make.”

Well, bullshit to that.

I thought, as an English and Special Education teacher, that I would be writing non-stop after each night. It didn’t happen.

One night, after a day marked by a student screaming obscenities and flinging herself around  the hall as she tried to process a recently disclosed trauma, however, I sat on the couch, desperately wanting  to write about the tragedy of this kid’s situation (while guarding her privacy). But I kept stopping. I could feel the emotion, but I couldn’t process it intellectually at that hour. So instead, I pulled out my sketch pad.

I started sketching Thing2 as he watched TV. I sketched an impromptu still life of a soda can and crumbs. A few nights later, I painted a favorite stand of trees. And, at the end of each art session, I’d feel as if I’d spent an hour with my favorite shrink.

The result has been painting at night and in the field on the weekend. It’s been selling art and spontaneous painting lessons with curious onlookers. It’s been opening up to the world and to my art again. And it’s been realizing that, just as “the love you take is equal to the love you make” all the creativity you use in the classroom or at work actually generates more creativity. You just have to find the right outlet. For you.

And then you have to pass it on.

I think John, Paul, George, and Ringo would agree.