Webster Junior High School, 1973
I am thinking (I have no idea why), with accompanying self-snickering, about my first day teaching in Webster Junior High School, in Newark, N.J. (see the most flattering actual photo above.) The year is 1973. After teaching for a few years in a large, vibrant senior high school on the Jersey Shore, where my students earnestly read Siddhartha, while conscientiously analyzing lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel, my professional life was abruptly rear-ended by that school district due to downsizing. I lost that dream job—I would have stayed forever—to be deposited that next fall in the North Ward of Newark. Webster encompassed 7, 8, and 9th graders in one ancient, fortress-like building. It was a fortress in which the adult army had tentative and ever-shifting control. But I didn’t know that quite yet.
Delighted to have found another teaching job, secretly proud that it was a “challenging school district”, I dressed with excitement for my first day. I remember the polyester shirtwaist dress I wore, along with my sensible yet acceptable-enough flats. Although I had been out as a lesbian for a few years, nevertheless I was still committed to fitting in, to making a difference through assimilation. The button I wore while living my new lesbian life subtly stated, “Behind Enemy Lines” in bright orange. I found that concept covertly thrilling. After much introspection—as much as I was able during those days, perhaps assisted by my frequent companion, marijuana, for deepening purposes—I came up with a focus for my first lesson at my new school. I was going to use that profound saying by Lao Tzu that I had pondered over many a stoned evening, to generate discussion, I was certain, with my new seventh graders:
The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
My memories of entering the school on that first day are blurred. I remember the sound of conga drums in the playground. Was there always drumming in that damn playground? I cannot think of Webster and not hear the relentless rhythm of congas. I remember the gleaming, almost slippery polished old floor. And I remember Mr. Lawson, our petite, Afro-American vice principle in charge of disciple, walking down the first floor hallway with a sign taped on the back of his immaculate suit jacket that proclaimed, “fagot”, an unfortunate misspelling. Shaky but still open-heartedly hopeful, I made my way to my first classroom. Assessing the somewhat shabby room, I nevertheless took a breath and wrote my name on the board broadly: MS. FUTURONSKY. Under it, yes, I actually dared to write the Lao Tzu quote.
As the bell rang, bedlam like I had never experienced in my twenty-five years of life erupted around me. In sight, sound, smell and sensation, overwhelm, like the release of a damn, flooded me. Into my classroom stampeded several dozen whirling dervishes. Bundles of released energy disguised as children of every skin color and size poured into the room. Tiny ones, larger ones, slow ones, really fast ones, 7th grade children poured into my life, not to leave me for several years to come. Fighting over seats, pushing and shoving, noise that could not seemingly ever be abated, I stood, dismayed, in my shirtwaist, with Lao at my back. A single step? I introduced. I suggested. I tried. I asked. I requested. I screamed. I might have begged. No, we did not talk about that single step. Nor did we talk about that journey we were beginning together that morning. We managed. We simply managed. The bell rang. The students faded away. More poured in. And on and on. That’s it—that’s my memory. The day unfolded, as did countless more. The dress? I never wore it again, although I can feel its synthetic fabric between my fingers in this moment. Siddhartha? Nope, he didn’t make it to Newark. Lao Tzu? I erased him from the board and from my heart.
I “managed” those next years. I endured and struggled and tried, in my own passively earnest way, to make a contribution. The rest blurs, faded into the soundtrack of conga drums and noise, always and endless and infinite noise.
And here I sit some 43-ish years later. In retrospect, I can see that day, that class, as a continuing and essential step in the unfolding of my dharma as a teacher. I can see myself walking through those years in Newark in that school, and in the next, almost 17 years’ worth of students in that city. I see myself inspired and defeated, hopelessly giving up, and trying again. I see myself stoned and then blessedly sober. I see the fullness of the journey that I could not see in the moment, too obsessed was I with wrestling the illusion of control from these poor children’s hands. I see it now.
When on the path, it’s hard to see the damn journey. Perspective is compromised, blurred beneath the day-to-day events—the shuffling of books, the relentless ringing of bells, the grading, oh, the endless grading of never-ending, almost meaningless papers. Sometimes the journey is just the managing, just the damn managing. But with some space and time, perspective emerges. “Oh, that school brought me to the next….which brought me to the next thing and then the next…..”
And now, on this new journey of aging, this act three, this possibility of eventual “re-wire-ment”, with body parts sagging toward the earth, I see only this step, right here, right now. Some steps are filled with possibility and hope; some only with my terror of my own hunger and exhaustion. Yet, one step at a time, I walk my dharma. One step at a time, no matter the “climate” of the moment, I move forward. We all do. No matter the moment, this is what it looks like, right here and right now, to continue forward on our journey of a trillion miles.
And you, dear readers: on your imperfectly perfect journey, what are you noticing? If you could imagine the bigger picture perspective, recognizing this specific moment as an inevitable and sacred thread in the tapestry of your life, how much more could you relax? How does this teaching land in your world today? Keep me posted.