I have walked or ridden my bike to work most days for the last 8 years of teaching. I enjoy the walking and what it means: that I live close enough; that I get to walk the same paths as my students; that my own footprints and not carbon's are the only ones I'm leaving. I remember one of my former delinquent students giving me a lift in his car which smelled densely of weed. I see the grin of Frank, a former student whom I'd worked hard to get into a therapeutic school, as he flagged me down to introduce me to his own son. I hear a rooster's crow one winter morning, welcoming the sun and the day and filling me with thanksgiving.
On top of these moments, I enjoy the sense that I'm a part of something larger than me. When I get to see third-world level poverty, drug deals and police hold ups it feels like I'm part of a movement of heroes of mine who have joined with their neighbors pain, and walked alongside them. The walking pace is important, too, because it binds me to consider my neighbors and their lives for longer than my fickle, self-gravitating mind would allow me if I drove. In short, walking to work allows me to live out some ideals that are important to me.
But this school year, the one that ended last Friday, has been different from the others. My group of students was the hardest I've ever taught - the most emotionally needy, the most resistant to authority and instruction, the most directly challenging. The gang violence and influence in my classroom and on my route has been more pervasive. And I know that every bit of un-health in the streets and in our schools is just a fraction of what exists in peoples homes. My walks are often laden with the weight of my students' pain and questions of how I or anyone might reach them. With each dysfunctionality and violence I come across, my footsteps grow heavier.
Just last week as I walked up my front stairs after a long day of work, a pair of 9-year-old boys yelled "suck my dick" and added gestures for clarity, to a pair of girls, probably 10. The girls yelled equally offensive things right back. Friday morning's particular heaviness started around 8 o'clock, as I walked by the home of a former student, Sara, whose gang-banging brothers were up early, looking down the block, at some commotion. I followed their gazes and found Frank (the proud dad) held up against a chain-link fence while two cops waited for back-up. His niece, who graduated from 8th grade this week, was held up right next to him.
I shook my head, as my feet banged like bricks on the pavement. I trudged on past a group of early-arrived students, greeted the office ladies, ascended to my classroom and plopped down at my teacher's desk. As I stared at the black screen of my computer, all I could think was, "I gotta get a car!"
As much as I am a man of ideals, I'm seeing a limit to the extent to which I can embody them. A crucial part of my teaching job is bringing fresh energy to students, who already at age 12 and 13, have given up. But if walking past their houses each day brings me to despair before I even get there, well, I suppose something's gotta give.
It's the same with our chickens. In November we bought 4 ISA Browns (like Rhode Island Reds), and have enjoyed all sorts of benefits from them. The amount of waste we had to have hauled to garbage dumps each weeks was cut drastically. We were able to better appreciate the work that goes into food production. And It gave the kids some meaningful chores, and an understanding of how breakfast got to their plates. There were lots of other benefits, too, but when the rats showed up in May and wouldn't go away no matter how carefully we managed the coop, it was time to give them up.
So I'm learning that in one life, in my one life, I can't do everything I care about. When I write that statement it feels laughably obvious, but I think it's worth saying anyway: We can only do what we can do.